In episode 21 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Andy Robinson discussed include:
Andy Robinson provides training and consulting for nonprofits, businesses, and government agencies. Over the past 25 years, Andy has worked with clients in 47 US states and Canada. Since the pandemic began in March 2020, he has designed and facilitated 70 online meetings, webinars, and remote workshops covering a variety of topics, including fundraising, board development, marketing, leadership development, facilitation, and train-the-trainer programs. Andy is the author of six books, including Train Your Board (and Everyone Else) to Raise Money, www.trainyourboard.com. His latest is What Every Board Member Needs to Know, Do, and Avoid. He lives in Plainfield, Vermont.
Carol Hamilton: Well welcome, Andy. Great to have you on the podcast.
Andy Robinson: Thank you for inviting me, Carol. It's good to be here with you.
Carol: So just to start out, I like asking the question of all my guests of what drew you to the work that you do, what, what motivates you and how would you describe your why?
Andy: So you're looking for my origin story in this work.
Carol: Well, I mean, it could be a more recent version of that, cause I'm sure it's evolved over the years.
Andy: All right. Well, for those of you who are listening, but not watching, I'm an old guy with a gray beard. And my, my origin story goes back to 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected president and I was fresh out of college and I didn't know who I wanted to be when I grew up or what I wanted to do. And I was a little stunned. I was like, what, what happened here? What do I do? And so I was casting around for something to do, and I opened the newspaper and. I looked in the classifieds and there was a job title called activist, and I thought, huh, that's interesting. What does that mean? What do those people do? And I applied for this job and I was hired and it turned out what I was doing was door to door canvassing. So I was one of those nice young people who came to your door and knocked on your door and told you about an organization. I had a conversation, asked you to give money. And that was my entry point into the world of nonprofits. And I think also the worlds of social change, social justice and community organizing. So what. Moves me now is what moved me then, which is the desire to create a positive change in the world and looking for tangible ways to do it. And for the last 25 years, I've run my own consulting practice as a trainer and consultant and facilitator. And I work with groups on planning and fundraising and facilitating meetings and building leadership and some of the stuff that you also do, Carol.
Carol: Yeah. It's interesting that you talk about that period right after college. It took me a little bit longer, but my first job that I got was working for a company that helped people get on talk shows. And so I found that I was actually rather good at writing the publicity and PR for folks and decided that I wanted to apply that skill to causes that I believed in. So that's what prompted my shift into the nonprofit sector.
Andy: This is sort of hilarious, cause you've recruited me to be on the talk show today.
Carol: Yeah, I've come full circle, I guess. So you said you, you've been in business for a long time and before that obviously had a long career in the sector and well, all the entire career in the sector, but in, in different roles. And you've said recently that you're shifting now into semi-retirement. And intentionally stepping back, taking shorter gigs. What's, what's your intention in doing that?
Andy: Well, there's three or four things. It's, it's a, it's a lovely question. The first thing is my own. Sustainability energy. One of the pleasures of working for yourself is that you work for yourself, but one of the pleasures of working for yourself is that you often never stop working. So I'm one of those people. Who's often at my desk at 10 o'clock at night, responding to emails that I didn't get to during the day. And I'm, I've reached the age where it's time for me to dial back my work so I can have more fun though. That's one answer to your question. The second answer to your question, and this slides us into the topic of succession planning. I have been helping and supporting other people enter this work for a number of years as facilitators and trainers and consultants. And I helped to lead a university program on this and then. I'm an informal coach to a lot of people who are entering into supporting nonprofits and, and, and the work that meets. So I feel like if I step back, there's more room for others to step up and jobs than I am not accepting. And I am referring those out to other people or jobs that I don't get any more. Cause it's okay. I have enough, I've had enough work. I don't need to do it much longer, but I'm also supporting and training and helping other people who want to enter this space. And that feels good to me. So this is my personal succession plan and I can't say I wrote it down, but it's something I've thought about for years and they've been implementing it step by step. And the latest step is for me to work less and be more assertive about pushing jobs out to other people, especially folks who are new to consulting. I'm sending a lot more work to BIPOC consultants, black indigenous people of color, as a way of supporting social justice and equity. So that's my current thinking and I'm spending more time having fun. I'm, I'm hiking out in the woods and I'm cooking good food and I'm spending time with my spouse whom I adore. And I still have enough work to keep things going. And that seems like a good balance right now.
Carol: Yeah. And a couple of things that you talked about you've worked with other leaders on succession planning. What do you think other nonprofit leaders could, could learn from your approach and how you've been doing it? It seems like you've been very intentional in how you're approaching it, which. I don't think it's particularly actually very well supported in our culture.
Andy: Well said. Well, I wanna, I wanna frame this two ways. One of the things I've done with organizations over many years is strategic planning, which is also something you've done a lot of. And one of them, I have a couple of favorites. Planning questions. One of the things I ask people is how long will it take to win? And they're like, what? And I say, how long will it take for you to change the world so effectively that the workflow of your organization is no longer necessary? Like, what's your exit strategy right now? We should acknowledge many organizations are perpetual organizations, hospitals, universities, some of these institutions should be around forever. I totally get that. A lot of groups are trying to solve a problem and go out of business. So my first question is how long will it take for you to win? And we spend some time chewing through because it might be a generation or two generations or three generations, right? Depending on the organization. Then I say, are you going to be here for the victory party? And of course, everybody laughed and said, no, I'm not going to be around that long. And then I say to them, if you are not actively grooming the next generation of leadership for your organization right now, by definition, you are failing at your mission by definition. So, this is not this optional thing. If you don't have a succession plan, excuse me. If you're not building leadership, as you're building your organization and doing your work and changing the world you're failing. So that's a little aha for people. And I wanted to apply that same thinking to myself, you know? So there's an old thing that people might remember if they were Scouts or they learned how to backpack, you're supposed to leave the campsite in better shape than you found it. Like if you show up at the campsite and there's trash, pick up the trash, when you, when you check out, take the trash with you, don't let somebody else deal with the trash. And so literally I am trying to leave the campsite. In better shape than I found it. And I feel like the way I can do that is by handing off and supporting, and training and building other people who are coming in behind me. And I will tell you, I have, I don't know the number there's at least 50 and probably more like a hundred different peers that I interact with over the course of a year, in terms of sharing jobs, trading notes, doing referrals. Picking each other's brains. I mean, I have an amazing network and that's what sustained me for all the years. I've been self-employed as all these lovely peers who are generous to me and I aspire to be generous to them. So if I can help people do that for themselves. And built that peer network and what a gift. Right. That's beautiful. So that's my intention here and I will do it imperfectly, cause we all do everything imperfectly, but so far so good.
Carol: So what would you think? What, what, what are some ways in which inside an organization, a leader can, can start to groom that next generation.
Andy: Yeah, well, once upon a time I mean, I've done webinars on this topic and, I could probably rattle off 10 steps. I don't know that that's a lot, but I'll throw you two or three, which is one thing you should do is look at your task list and try to hand off, I don't know, one task a week, two tasks a week. And I don't mean, pardon me, Carol. I don't mean the menial stuff. I mean, substantive stuff. I mean, if you're doing all the data entry and you hand that off to somebody else. Sure. That's lovely, but that's not building their skillset. So that's one thing they could do is actually look at what you do and say, is there stuff that I can delegate? Reasonably appropriately without burdening other people, but also takes me out of the center of things. That's one idea, second idea. And this speaks to the facilitation work that you and I both do is when I'm building an agenda and I'm figuring out who's going to lead. What section of the agenda. I want multiple people leading different parts of the agenda because the ability to. To run a meeting, to facilitate a conversation is a leadership skill. So I am currently chairing a board and I had a board meeting last night. So this is top of mind. And as I was building the board agenda, I had about, I think, five different people leading different parts of the meeting. And so that's a second idea if you're actually bringing groups together, share the power within the group so that you have that agenda where people are. Taking turns, facilitating and leading and, and building the conversation. The third one is one that I've touched on already, which is don't be a perfectionist. And there's the classic thing you see is that you have a leader who wants it done their way, and often somebody else has a different way of doing it. That is different, but could be just as effective or differently, effective or weaker in some ways, but stronger in ways that your way isn't. And so part of it is accepting the fact that other people do things they think about. Problems or challenges or opportunities differently. They approach them differently. That's something that should be embraced by leaders, as opposed to we have one way we do things here. So those are some ideas. I mean, I kicked this back to you. I know you think about this. When you're advising leaders on succession and distributing power, what tips do you offer?
Carol: Well, it's interesting that you talked about delegation because I think people think about that. That's an obvious one, but yet folks struggle with it for so much. And I think it goes to the last point that you've talked about. And I've been in situations where I've dealt with things delegated to me. And the leader has told me explicitly that, that, no, you, however you approach it is great until I stumbled upon the way that they actually wanted me to do it. Yes. And I think it's not even conscious on their part. Right. It's not their, their conscious intention was to hand this off and let me run with it. And then, I approach it differently and, and it was like, Ooh, well, wait a second. Not so much. And I think you can then ideally you then have a conversation to figure out what's the middle ground between the two. I don't know that I always handled it that way. Because I think my perpetual lesson that I've had to learn over and over again is indeed that people do things differently than I would do.
Andy: if you've done any anti-racism training, anti-oppression training, one of the first things they talk about is the difference between intention and impact. Sure. Right. And often we have very good, positive, sacred, Holy high-minded intentions, but we're clueless about the impact we're having on other people. And this is one of those examples. It's like, My intention is to give this job to you. But the impact I'm having is I'm micromanaging you while you're doing it. I'm just doing that. So, I mean, I have a mental way to do this, which is I would have people imagine there's a spectrum. And at one end of the spectrum, I'm pointing to my left are people who are really good at empowering others and supporting others and delegating. That's one of the ends of the spectrum. The other end of the spectrum pointing to my right. People's responses, the heck with it. I'm just going to do it myself. It's easier to just do it myself and full disclosure here is I live down at that. Right, and the second end of the spectrum, my default button is, the heck with it. I'm just going to do it myself. It's easier. And what's interesting here is I have spent an entire lifetime trying to move myself down that line to the opposite end of the spectrum. Getting myself out of the way. So, I mean, I don't know if this is today's topic, but I will touch on it. I carry a lot of privilege. I'm an upper middle-class, white, cisgendered, straight male. I have an Ivy League education. I'm able-bodied. I mean, I have all the markers. I have English as my first language. I am, I have all the markers of privilege and I feel like my work for the last several years and maybe the last decade is to shrink my footprint and take up less space. And because that's what that's, what privilege is, is you take up a lot of space that you're not even aware that you're taking up. So, and I'll talk about this in front of groups and, there's a chance to bring this into a training or a facilitation, and there's a moment to have this conversation. I'll have it, but one of the ways that I can delegate perhaps in an we'll use the word unintentional, but as a secondary way is to just take up less space, to speak less to. Shrink my presence in whatever way that looks like, because that creates space for other people to step in and embrace their leadership skills. So I am like the amazing shrinking man, but I still take up huge amounts of space, but I'm mindful of it. And I am checking that whenever I can. And I think that's a succession planning strategy too. If you're a leader, how do you take up less space so that other people can occupy that space? And how do you really underline that and embrace that as a, as a strategy and a tool?
Carol: Yeah. So one of them is just, let's say, you're, you're discussing a topic with a group and trying to figure out different ways that you might approach it brainstorming. And if the leader can take a beat and not be the first person to talk can be huge.
Andy: Yeah. And I’ve facilitated a couple of online things over the last year where I've had leaders say to me, I'm not, I'm going to say very little, I'm going to not speak first. I'm going to step back intentionally. This is not me telling them this is them coming to me and saying, FYI, if you see me being quiet, it's me stepping back. And my response is thank you. And if I, if I feel as a facilitator, I need their voice. I can call on them. And say, Martha, haven't heard from you yet on this, what's your thinking. And I can cue them when needed, but that's, that's a great level of self-awareness and I'm, I'm glad you brought that up.
Carol: Yeah. And there's some tools, I mean, for brainstorming, there's some tools that you can use to help everybody's voice get in the room. By just having people, write things down first, like, the classic sticky notes and, and now in the virtual space on something like mural or jam board and, before anybody says anything, allowing people a few minutes to get their ideas out onto the board and in some cases you can trace, who's had what, but most people, by the time they're on there, they're not paying that much attention to it. And so it gives space for people, all, all the folks who are participating to step in. And, and one other thing that you talked about at that rotating facilitation, which is a simple thing, I was in this past year I've been teaching folks how, how to facilitate effectively online. And I was working with an intact team walking through the program and then they were trying to think about, okay, so how do we actually, the classic challenge with training of how do we actually make this stick? How do we, that was nice, but we did it in your, in your session. How do we actually start implementing this in practice? And so we talked about them using it in internal meetings first so that the stakes are lower. And so when I had my one-on-one with their leader, one of the things we talked about, I was like, well, okay, so what meetings do you typically lead? And he always led their weekly staff meeting.
I was like, well, what if, what if you rotate that. And, the intention there was to make sure that everyone was practicing facilitation. But as you say, facilitation and leading a meeting, thinking about an agenda, how are you guiding the group? How are you guiding the conversation? What questions are you asking about self leadership skills? So just by that, by him stepping back and saying, no, I'm not going to be the default, in a weekly meeting that doesn't need to be me. Is an easy first step to take. Yeah,
Andy: I totally agree. And one of the things I'm noticing about all these zoom meetings is all the boxes are the same size. And if you're fairly skillful, I mean, my experience of Zoom so far is that the alphas who tend to dominate it's a little harder to do it in that environment. And especially if there's some good facilitator helping work the process the alphas are less alpha and. That creates an equity opportunity. So what's one of the things I'm appreciating about all these virtual meetings is I think they do level the playing field a little bit if you handle them properly.
Carol: Right. And again, it all goes back to how you're structuring them. And and, and I think it's interesting to also watch how some people who might not speak up then have access to the chat. And so, they may not be contributing verbally to the meeting, but they're contributing often very coherent and quite eloquent thoughts in the chat. So, there's, it just gives people different ways to interact with the group and contribute. Again, as he said, if you kind of. Position that well, so
Andy: Carol, can I bring some Shakespeare into the car? Sure. In many, many Shakespearian tragedies, there was a fool and the fool is the person who says to the King when the King is being a jerk and maybe he gets whipped or beaten a little bit, for the most part, it is their job to speak truth to power. And I feel like if you're a leader and you're thinking about succession, you need to designate somebody in your organization who will call you out when you're overstepping your boundaries and not be punished for it. So I think, I think every leader needs a full. Where they trust and love, but who will speak truth to them and say, you're overstepping here. Or you're, you're AWOL what's up. Or you really handle that one. You could handle that one differently than you did. And it takes some courage to have somebody who is your designated call you out person, and it doesn't have to be publicly, can be privately like, FYI at that meeting, you missed an opportunity. I want to share with you what I saw that opportunity was. So. Sometimes as the consultant, we fill that role. Sometimes our job is to speak truth, to power and name things that people don't want to talk about because they're difficult. But even if you had somebody like that within your organization who had that role and handled the Def that's a succession tool as well.
Carol: So what I think we've talked about this a little bit, but what are some of the mistakes that you've seen leaders make when, when. When they're thinking about their exit or perhaps not even not even thinking about it and then that broader transition that's, cause it's never just one thing. There's always a ripple effect. Yeah, it goes through the organization.
Andy: There's a guy named Don Tebbe. Who's written a lot about this. And one of his quotes is leading well is leaving well, or maybe it's the other way around. Maybe it's leaving well is leading well, it works either way. So first of all, we have to lift that up as a value. It's okay to leave well, in terms of mistakes. Oh, let us count the ways. I think a classic mistake is hanging onto them, you know? And I am I'm I'm right in the middle of the baby, boom, I'm boomer through and through boomers, we need to step aside and I acknowledge that maybe you haven't saved all the money you need to retire, or maybe you're having too much fun or maybe there's still work to do that you want to do. And that's awesome. And time to step aside, at least figuring out what that looks like for you. So one thing is just hanging on too long and it is, it is baked into the system, but the skills that one needs to start a company, a business, an organization to start anything is a different skill set that is required to build it to maturity. And it's few people that have both of those skill sets. So you and I have both. I dealt with this thing called founder's disease or founder's syndrome or founder itis. Right. And God bless founders, ‘cause we need them. They make stuff happen. They are amazing people, but founders sometimes leave trouble in their wake. So I think one thing we have to do is to be mindful of that as we're doing this, you and I have both worked with boards where there's been board members on the board for 20 or 30 years term limits is a whole nother thing here that we can be thinking about in terms of a succession plan, is that if the staff leadership turns over, you still have the same people on the board with the same set of assumptions and the same story that goes back to 1993, about why we should be doing this. And it's a different world. Would that be a second mistake? And I'll kick this back to you. I can come up with more, but I mean, what have you seen as the biggest challenge to succession? What gets in the way?
Carol: Well, one that was interesting. I was working with a group where it was that classic thing of the board members. originating founder, the founder was still on the board. some of the founding board members were still there. And I think part of the challenge, like, and the person, said that they wanted to step back, said that they were tired and they didn't, they wanted to groom new people and said all the right things. And again, behaved in the absolute opposite way of micromanaging staff and, and, questioning if a board, if the board made a decision then going around the board to undermine it when the, they didn't agree in those kinds of things. And I think what was as part of that challenge, and I think for many people is that for that person, it was so much part of their identities. That they couldn't imagine what they would be without leading that organization.
Andy: I came up in an era. I mean, again, my career started in 1980. I came up in an era where if you were working for nonprofits, especially these, heavily mission-driven nonprofits, the assumption was you were, you would bleed for the cause. And you'd come in early and you'd stay late and it was your life. And one thing I'm loving about working with millennials is they actually want to have a life outside of the office and an identity that's not connected to their jobs. And that's great. So I think the problem is, a generation that came up the way that I came up, which is your identity is your work. And your identity is the causes that you care about. And there's something positive about that. I mean, that's, that's commitment and that's powerful, but it's also destructive. So yeah, you're right. I think we have to have identities that are, at least we can separate from the work we do or the organizations we're involved with. Because I think the classic problem is people won't let go because their identities are tied up in the work.
Carol: Yeah. And then they feel, less than, or they don't, they're not useful or, they have no purpose without, without this work that they're doing. And I mean, I guess for me, I, I saw my dad struggle with that. He was the greatest generation and dedicated every minute. Of his working life to his working life. And just struggled when he retired or, it was in a system where you, you had to retire at a certain age. And because everything about his adult life had been wrapped up in that job. And watching the difference. And my mom was a stay-at-home mom, but she also shaped, like we. He was in the foreign service. So we traveled around the world and every country, she would get a new degree. So she entertained herself by getting degrees, taking care of us. But then like, but she was never as attached to those. I don't think in the same way, it's just, wasn't the same. And so for me, going into the workforce, I always had the, and my, my tagline for the podcast is how, how to be in the nonprofit sector without being a martyr to the cause. Cause I just think that martyr syndrome is just so toxic to our sector. And so I've always tried to think about, well, there's work. And then there, then it's not that there's like work in life. Like your work is part of your life, right? It's not that separate, but how do you kind of. Keep cultivating other communities, other networks and other aspects that you want to develop. I mean, I, I do know a lot of people through my faith community who are retired and I've just, I've seen some amazing transformations of, someone who was a lawyer who specialized in some incredibly arcane aspect of, Law who then after he retired and he struggled to retire, took him like five years from when he started talking about it to when he actually did. But then started taking classes, started taking art classes at the local community college and mean has become quite the, I don't think he was trying to become a great artist, but, but he's become quite accomplished and really enjoys that.
Andy: So exploring different aspects of yourself is as important I think. And, and I will argue that our greatest ex president is Jimmy Carter. He did, a lifetime's worth of work after he left the white house. Right, right. Amazing things, amazing things. And so, yeah, I mean, that's someone who had a third act or a fourth act, or however you want to count it. So, yeah, it's certainly possible to have a life after work. Like maybe you all have that.
Carol: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I don't know. I've also worked with yes. And you named it, you named it. So I'll, I'll say it, the baby boomers who would be having conversations with me and I'm, and, just baffled with this baffled look on their face. So I just don't know where the leaders are going to come from. And I'm like, okay. I know when you started being a leader, you were like 15 years younger than me. In your career, but you don't think that I could possibly be in that role, you know?
Andy: So yeah. Yeah, that's right. I am carrying the shame of an entire generation.
Carol: Well, we will, we will require you to do that.
Andy: No problem. It's it's, it's, it's the old thing. It's, it's like men have to talk to men about sexism and misogyny and. White people about racism and boomers have to talk to boomers about letting it go. So here we are.
Carol: Yeah. Yeah. So since we've been at the end of every episode, I play a game where I ask one ice breaker question from this box of icebreaker questions that I have. So since we've been talking about, second, third acts, fourth acts retirement what's the last thing that you completed on your bucket list and not as soon as of course that you have a bucket list.
Andy: Oh, interesting. Yeah, we just bought an electric vehicle. Oh, wow. Yeah. From a neighbor. So we got a second hand Chevy bolt and I've been driving it for the last month and I'm learning all the bells and the whistles, but it's one of the things. And actually we had a We had a charger installed in our garage some time ago. And then we were going to buy another car. This is more detailed, but anyway I wanted to get an Evie and now I have one. So that was on the bucket list and it has been completed.
Carol: Excellent. Excellent. Well, when, when our cars die and we're waiting well, We're just watching them and they will die soon. That is on our list next to, to try to try to buy an electric vehicle. And probably we'll probably end up with a used one cause we ended up with a used Prius, so that'll be next. So, what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you?
Andy: We talking about work or, or fun, or where do you want to get?
Carol: Wherever you want to go
Andy: Well, I will say this next Thursday, which is the 28th, excuse me, the 25th. I am teaming up with my buddy Harvard, McKinnon, who is one of North America's great fundraisers. He's written many books. He's a lot of fun. And he and I are doing a webinar together called raising more money by asking and to answering better questions. And it's all about. Questions that donors think that you really have to anticipate and answer, but also questions you can ask donors to deepen the conversation. So for the fundraising webinar, it's sponsored by the sustainability network, which is Canada's national support network for the environment. And that's on the 25th. So people can track it down and go to my website, you'll see the information there. And so that's coming up and that's something I'm excited about.
Carol: This episode will probably be published after that happened. So will that be possible for people to access it after the fact?
Andy: It's a great question. I don't know. But I suspect if they go to the website for the sustainability network, which is sustainability to sustainability network.ca and poke around there, you may find it if not reach out to me and I'll put you on my list for future events, I'm doing lots of webinars and trainings. Someday I may actually go back on the road again when that's allowed. We'll see. And I look forward to supporting you in whatever way I can.
Carol: All right. Well, thank you so much. It was great talking with you this morning. Thank you Carol.
Andy: For inviting me. It was fun talking with you too, and have a good day, everybody.
In episode 20 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Elizabeth Scott discussed include:
Elizabeth Scott, PhD, founder of Brighter Strategies, provides thought leadership and high value organizational development consulting in support of a stronger social sector. Liz has provided consulting services in strategic planning, process-improvement, and human capital development for hundreds of nonprofits and associations. She has been a Baldrige examiner for the Commonwealth of Virginia and is a certified Standard of Excellence consultant. In addition to managing the practice, Liz holds a faculty positions at both The Chicago School of Professional Psychology and George Mason University. Liz holds an undergraduate degree in Sociology and a master’s degree in Organizational Sciences from The George Washington University, as well as a second master’s and Ph.D. in Human and Organizational Systems from Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California.
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Liz. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Elizabeth Scott: Thanks so much, Carol. I'm excited to be here.
Carol: So just to get started, can you tell people what drew you to the work that you do? What, what really motivates you and what would you say is your, why.
Elizabeth: Yeah, absolutely. Great question. So I think for me, there's a little Y and then there's a big why, and I'll start with the little why my undergraduate and most of my formative studies are in sociology and macro theory. And so for me, it's always been really interesting to understand why organizations. Why people, why groups behave the way that they do. And so that's been something that has stuck with me through my education, as well as, as I went into the workforce, particularly my first job out of college. And I wondered why do people work the way they do? Why is this happening the way it is? And then the bigger ‘why’ is, as I advanced in my career, I began to realize that the non-profit community, the nonprofits are such a, they're a fabric of our community and they touch everybody's lives. And in the nonprofit space, at least at the time when I started writer strategies, there weren't a lot of groups that were focused on building capacity in that space, particularly being here in DC, things tend to be a little bit more federal government oriented. And the nonprofit sector is huge and it really impacts the daily lives of all of us. And so I thought, could I combine the two, could I combine my passion of capacity building and development and nonprofit work. And I was really lucky and was able to do that.
Carol: Yeah, it's interesting that you talk about that, why do people work the way they do? I think that's what drew me to the work as well. I was already in the sector and I think so many people come into the sector wanting to work on some cause or some issue that they find really important. And certainly that drew me as well. But over time it was more. Thinking about the function of how people work. always hoping that they're doing good work, but thinking about the function and, and how to help them be more effective over time. So, yeah, I definitely, I definitely relate to that. Motivation. Yeah,
Elizabeth: we always talk about that. Our role as consultants is to help build internal capacity so that they can go out and do whatever that mission work is. And there are so many organizations that are doing really great things and, so our focus is on helping them shore up. Do you have the right people, the right planning, the right processes so that you can be sustainable, so that you can actually impact your community the way you want. And those are really important questions.
Carol: And talking of sustainability, you've done some research recently on nonprofit leadership and its intersection with the organizational code culture during COVID. What would you say are some of your key findings in that research?
Elizabeth: So we had the opportunity to partner with the center for nonprofit advancement. And we did a study that went out to 255 nonprofits here in the DC area. And what we found is that as COVID was rolling out and all of the murders that were happening over the summer and the racial unrest that organizations were really struggling [and] trying to figure out where their place should be. And so what we heard. Was that there was a substantial loss of funding for most organizations. They suddenly were in a position where they could not engage with clients the way they had done it before, nobody was doing virtual or. Doing in-person anymore because of COVID. So they were shifting their energies to think more virtual. Lot of them were completely rethinking their strategic plan. And on top of that, they had a lot of increased costs with trying to move programs online. And then you add on top of that, that a lot of them lost most of their volunteer base because volunteers tend to be in the older community. They weren't leaving their homes. They weren't being engaged. Those who were in the younger community suddenly had children at home that were homeschooling. They could not go out and volunteer and do what they had been doing. And so you add all that and mix it up. And what we found was that. Organizations were being impacted significantly.
And then on top of that, there was this huge gap of services. So when we did the survey, we actually found that organization saw an 80% increase in the needs that they saw in their communities. And that they saw that these were gaps that their organization and other organizations weren't able to sustain. And so, some organizations did get some aid, but the need is really outpacing the funding. And so that was a really interesting study. The full report is actually available in the center for nonprofit advancements website. So if anyone wants to go there and see some of the other pieces We also did a followup, a bunch of focus groups in January to get a sense. And that was a partnership with ACRA Alexandria to get a sense of what are people experiencing now, now that we're about a year in, and there were some really interesting findings there, particularly around the culture piece that you were talking about. And the first one was that people are still rethinking strategy and operations. So they've moved to virtual, but now they're beginning to think about how do we reintegrate when we go back to being in person, they're really concerned about low morale and trying to figure out how to keep people connected and looking for ways to support people during this time of uncertainty.
We also heard that fundraising is top of mind for people. Everyone is in need. Everyone is asking for how do we do this the right way without overtaxing or over asking? Staff in general, executive directors are a little bit burned out and staff are tired. They're emotionally exhausted. And so there's a lot of emphasis on self-care and building better support systems. And then I think to no surprise the conversation around racial equity is something that people are spending a lot of time talking about. So how do we send her race equity with our board? How do we center it with our staff? How do we think about how we're engaging communities in a mindful and thoughtful way? And then the last thing we heard was around governance. So all those volunteers that we talked about earlier sitting on boards, many of them have dropped off boards. They have been busy with their own lives and suddenly can not be as engaged as they want to be. So a lot of the organizations that we talk to are rethinking board governance. They're rethinking their overall strategy, rethinking recruitment. So there's a lot on people's plates right now, I think.
Carol: Yeah, absolutely. You're talking about struggling to keep that place whole then One of the things that, oftentimes during a recession you'll have that dual impact on nonprofits of increased need for their services and decreased funding and revenue, but it feels like. With this there's even more layered on top of that with the impact on volunteers, the impact on boards having to do your program in a totally different way. It's, it's even more so than what maybe organizations had. Might've been able to work through and, and be, be resilient through a recession or, or in the economic downturn in the past. And this being wholly different.
Elizabeth: Yeah. And I think of something you said earlier, you layer that on top of the fact that we're all now isolated and many of us are virtual. And so how do you keep a positive sustaining culture within your organization when. People are all over the place. And not only are people working from home, but they're dealing with homeschooling, they're dealing with elder care, they're dealing with lots of other personal life issues that are going to influence how they're able to show up on the job. And so I think that's important to note too. So this focus on. Self-care this focus on building morale on making sure that people don't feel burned out, that they feel valued, that they're contributing to the organization. I think those are really important elements and a little bit of a silver lining that we're having these conversations.
Carol: And how would you say what are, what are some things that you see are working in terms of organizations being able to address that morale issue?
Elizabeth: Great question. So what we've seen work really well are for organizations that have really ramped up their communication processes and organizations that have involved staff in these decisions. So we have a number of clients that are having regular touch point meetings with staff they're doing some of them are doing things like appreciative inquiry style workshops, where they're really trying to think about. What's good and what's working and how do we harness that? So they're using staff to brainstorm and to think through solutions to problems. We've seen organizations put together really intentional care packages. So things from, stipends, or we had one client that is in person right now. And so they partnered with an emotional support animal rescue. And so they're bringing the animals by on a weekly basis for staff to get an opportunity to hang out with them, to be able to sit with the dog, pet the dog for a little bit. So I think people are being really creative, but those that are being successful are doing it with intentionality and they're not doing it in a vacuum. They're there, they're involving their staff and trying to identify solutions for how to move forward.
Carol: That's so key because I, I, wait, in the, before times way before the pandemic was working in an organization where, there was a sense of like, we're really stodgy and we don't have fun. And so, the CFO decided it would be a great idea to put a foosball table in the, in the kitchen area. And that was a nice idea. And 2 out of the 80 staff would regularly use it. But it just didn't fit with the culture. People knew that they would not be looked well upon if they were actually playing foosball on work hours. So, involving staff and having a conversation about what, what works for us, what works within our culture, I think is super important.
Elizabeth: Yeah. And it's not all these things like foosball tables or, people try to do fun. Those are good. There's nothing wrong with infusing some fun into the workplace. But a lot of culture is really built off of what we value and how we behave and how we treat one another. So I think involving staff in these conversations that say, look, things are weird right now, and we're acknowledging that what do you need to be successful? How can we support you? I think having those more, what I'll call more real conversations as opposed to, Hey, we bought you a popcorn machine can be really helpful and appreciated by staff. At the end of the day, we all want to feel valued and we want to feel heard and. So organizations that are doing that I think are able to traverse some of the difficulties that we've talked about during COVID easier than organizations that are not putting time and intentional thought into culture.
Carol: And how would you say that organizations are dealing with that loss of the volunteer base? I mean, what have you seen, what steps have you seen organizations take in that direction?
Elizabeth: that's actually huge. What we've seen is that a lot of them are completely rethinking their programming and rethinking ways to engage volunteers. So I'll go back to the study that we did with the center, but we found that 56% of the organizations, and this was about October, November, timeframe had transitioned all of their in-person. Activities to virtual 62% created entirely new programs. So things they weren't even running pre COVID. And then another 25% started doing emergency in person programming, which was also not part of their original charter pre COVID. And so in all of those cases, being able to think about how we use volunteers in different ways. It's not just the socially distancing piece, but can we get a volunteer to run a virtual event, for example, as opposed to having a staff person do it? Or can we partner? One of the things that we've learned with virtual events is it's better to have more than one person on there. And so can we partner a staff person with a volunteer to help facilitate a support group for example, or a parent teacher evening or whatever it is, educational format or whatever it is that they're doing. So I think people are just being really creative, but they're also creating entirely new service offerings, which is interesting. There's a little bit of a silver lining there that it took a pandemic, but people are being really creative and that's a positive thing.
Carol: Yeah. I think the assumption that you can do things only in person or only online. I think after we go back to whatever, not back, but go to whatever the next normal will be. There's, I think there's going to be this heightened assumption that people can access things online, not having to travel and all of those kinds of things, when you're trying to do both at the same time in person and online is harder than doing one or the other. So that's going to be a really hard challenge, I think, that raised [the] expectations that people have.
Elizabeth: Yeah, I would totally agree with you. I think that we're not going to go back to being in person the way we were. I think we're going to end up being hybrid for quite some time. People's work habits have changed. People have realized that they can work in other environments. even in my own friend circle, I've had four sets of friends that have moved outside of the DC area and relocated because they've realized that they can do their jobs from anywhere. And so I think nonprofits are not immune to that. I think they've started to create new programming and I think some of that programming is going to stick. Obviously the in-person stuff is going to come back too, but at the end of the day, I think we're going to have this hybrid work experience and learn to do that, at least over the next two or three years. I don't know that anyone has that down pat yet, but they're working on it and I think people are smart. We'll figure it out.
Carol: Can you give me some examples of those kinds of new, new programming elements that people have developed?
Elizabeth: Yeah. one of the really creative things that we've heard is actually around fundraising. So a lot of people, a lot of organizations are dependent on an annual event, like a gala or a walk or something that is very in-person oriented. And a lot of the organizations. That we work with have been really creative about repurposing and reformatting those experiences. And interestingly, they've actually, for the most part made more money off of them because they're not paying for all of the, the hotel, the rental, the food, all that sort of thing. The trick there seems to have been to create a personalized experience for the donor. So some of these groups. Would mail care packages to people's homes. We had one client that did a wine tasting and they mailed the wine tasting to everybody. And then Somalia came on zoom and walked you through your personalized wine tasting and groups have music and other sorts of things that are happening in the background. So they're just thinking about how do we, how do we take what was in person and create meaningful value? In a virtual experience. And I think that outside of fundraising and operations, we're seeing that on the program side too. Right. So how can I connect with my clients in a way maybe we were doing in-person support groups. Well, now we can do them virtually and one client, by way of example, said that their support groups, which were regionally oriented tended to have about. Seven to maybe 12 people that showed up. Now those same support groups have over 50 people showing up because people are no longer tied to the geographic region. You want to go to the Dallas support group, but you're in Boston. Sure. Go for it. And so they've been able to reach more. People have more of a positive impact in their community, but do it in a way that has been innovative and creative.
Carol: Yeah, I've heard a lot of organizations talk about increased participation in the variety of events or programs that they offer simply because that, the, the commute time having to just be out of the office. All of those things are, are taken, taken away, or are no longer there. So it just makes it easier. The ease of entry is just there and in comparison to going to an event and committing not only to the time you're there, but the time on either end to get there and get back.
Elizabeth: Yeah, it's interesting. I remember a couple of years ago in the fundraising space, there was this huge trend to have events where you would pay to not go. it would be a fun run or something like that. And someone like me who's lazy would say, eh, I'll give you a hundred bucks. I don't actually want to run. So you were paying to not be involved in a way. This is another new creative way of thinking about. How do we engage people? How do we provide something tangible, but yet you're not actually going to an event. Right. But I think people are concerned about how much appetite will people have for virtual convening? And it's not just fundraisers, but it's also programming. And I think we're all feeling a little zoomed out right now. And so how many hours a day is it healthy to be on zoom and to engage in virtual dialogue with people? I think all that is still maybe a little bit of a question mark.
Carol: Yeah, I don't, I don't think it's an all or nothing. Right. I mean, and, and having to do it all the time. I had a particularly long day of zooming yesterday and I was just wiped by the abdomen and, and some people that's their reality all the time. Now I have the luxury of having a little more control over it. How would you say organizational cultures really need to do in order to, to adapt to this new reality?
Elizabeth: That's a good question too. I think that organizations are going to have to start thinking about work in different ways, and they're going to have to start thinking about how people communicate in different ways. So some organizations. Zoom is one thing, right? Some organizations were fast adopters of that. Other technologies like Slack or I'm sure there's lots of other mediums out there as well. I'm not extremely well versed in those, but the idea of thinking of how we communicate in real time, how we manage workflow. Having even things as simple as having all of your files be on the cloud. So people can access the same material that when we're editing documents, we're not working over each other, but working collaboratively with one another. So I think that as organizations continue down this path, having strong communication strategies makes sense, doing workflow mapping makes sense. How do we want to work together? What does that look like? I think revisiting strategies. Makes sense. So much has changed for a lot of organizations. The strategic plan that they put in place may or may not be relevant at this point. So a lot of the groups we're working with right now are actually looking at one year strategic plans, as opposed to the more traditional three to five-year plan, because they're really trying to think about how we get through the next 12 months. What does that look like? And we'll talk about beyond later. So I think just being flexible and revisiting the what and the how of how work happens is really important.
Carol: Yeah, going to that strategy piece. I think when, when people are in that crisis mode and you talked about all the different stressors that are, that are hitting organizations. And so it is, about, can we, can we get through, can we survive this? And when you're in that survival mode, I was doing a focus group the other day and was asking about trends in the particular field that these folks worked in, and they were talking and saying how ‘we're just trying to survive.’ I can't think long-term right now. And, we know that our brains just don't work that way. Like when you are in crisis, you are short, you do, short-term thinking. So, just accepting that reality, that where we are. That's where that organization is.
Elizabeth: one interesting thing that jumps out for me as you were sharing that. We had the opportunity to run a focus group. It's actually more like a large listening session with about 25 nonprofits that use a design thinking process to help them think about what partnership and collaboration in COVID looks like. And it was this really interesting dynamic conversation where people realize to your point, they can't go it alone. So if I am struggling. And you're struggling. Chances are we're struggling in different areas. So how can I support you? How can you support me? And so getting these organizations together to brainstorm and think about what might a more collaborative future look like, where could we partner and share resources. Share connections, share relationships, maybe even go after [some] larger foundation or larger grant money through a more collective collaborative pool. So having those conversations I think is incredibly powerful and it was really neat listening to the different connections that some of these groups were making.
And some of them were connections that you would think are sort of obvious, like, okay, we all work in early childhood education. So we could all band together this way. However, some of the connections were a little bit less obvious: people might've been in the same geographic region or they might've had similar funders or had similar interests in the business community where they could bring boards together to leverage resources that way.
So again, I think it's just another opportunity to be really creative. And mindful about how to do business differently.
Carol: Yeah. I love the point that you're making that, organizations may be struggling, but they're probably not all struggling in the same way and something is going well in the organization.
And how can they share that with others?
Carol: exactly. And you talked about communications. Can you say a little bit more about [the] organizations that are doing this well are really focusing on that. Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by that and how, if, if an organization wanted to spend more time focused on that, what they might do?
Elizabeth: I think it's about the organization and the people within it, having real time access. And all getting information at the same time. So making sure that everybody has access to information and resources that people understand what decision-making processes are in place around the information that's being communicated to them, that they understand what next steps are. One of the things that we talk about at the team level is something as simple as putting together a team charter that identifies communication protocols, who's responsible for communicating what we talk about to other areas or groups within the organization. So information it's like water, it's a waterfall, right? It should cascade from one group to the next group and it should go up through the organization as well as down through the organization. So I think groups that are doing this well, have an actual communication plan in place where they're thinking about who needs to know what, when, and they're transparent, they're not operating in silos or hoarding information. And some of that can be done through technology. Things like Slack, for example, gives you the opportunity to send information to everybody, as opposed to maybe an email where I forgot to include a name, but it's not just technology. It's also about behaviors and habits and transparency, which I think is equally as important.
Carol: Yeah, because oftentimes, organizations relied on informal processes that people didn't really think about how information was disseminated. May it may be a few key pieces where an email goes out to everybody, but oftentimes it was much more informal. Oh, you went to that meeting and then you stop by and see somebody. And, Oh, what, what did you talk about in that? What's going on with your team and you don't have those opportunities in a remote working environment to be able to bump into people and have those informal. So it all has to be much more intentional and much more explicit. And I also appreciated what you said about decision making, because that's, I think another area where there've been a lot of implicit norms that people have about how decisions get made, but there isn't necessarily a common kind of. Yeah. Explicit understanding of how that happens. Yeah.
Elizabeth: We've actually sat down with teams and done decision trees. Right. So this is a particular type of decision who needs to be involved, who needs to be communicated with whoever is the ultimate decision maker on this. And what's fascinating about doing that. I mean, it sounds like a boring exercise, but what's fascinating about that is you get three or four people around a table. They have completely different understandings of how a simple decision should be made. Right. And you realize these are things we don't really talk about in team meetings. We talk about the work that needs to get done, but we don't often talk about the process by which that work happens. And that brings me full circle back to my passion for sociology and looking at how that applies to an organization because the, how the work happens. In many cases it is much more important and impactful because you cannot have an impact or the impact that you want in the community. If you're not operating in a way that is sustainable or that builds internal capacity.
Carol: Yeah. And so that also brings to mind something that you mentioned before of workflow mapping and all of these things, if someone's struggling to keep their head above water, they're like, well, you don't have time to do all of this. And yet, investing a little bit of time in doing these things that can seem prosaic and boring can actually almost, get, get, get some of the static out of the system because people then have a common understanding.
Elizabeth: It reminds me of the manager who says I'm so busy. I don't have time to delegate yet. They're so busy that if they actually could delegate, they would be in a much less stressful position. It's sort of that same notion.
Carol: Yeah. Yeah. So at the end of every episode, I play a game where I ask you a somewhat random icebreaker question. So I know that you in addition to leading brighter strategies, you're a professor. So I thought you would appreciate this question. If you could instantly be an expert in any subject, what would it be and why?
Elizabeth: Ooh, any subject. Okay. So my husband has tried to explain how electricity works to me probably 50 times. And I get it. It's like water. That's what he keeps telling me. But I don't get it. I just do not understand. It's like magic. You flip a light switch on and it happens. And I just have never really understood hard sciences were never a strength of mine. So if I could be instantly smart at something, it would be understanding some of the hard sciences, understanding how things work so that I could have an actually a more intelligible conversation with him and others. When those sorts of topics come up. You bring up anything science oriented and I'm like, I have no idea.
Carol: So it's how things work versus how people work. Yeah. All right. Well what are you excited about with your work? What's coming up next for you and what's, what's emerging in the, in the work that you're doing.
Elizabeth: Well, I'm really excited about a new project. We have for February, for black history month, and then for March for women's history month, we have our highlighting clients and individuals running nonprofits here in the DC area that we're doing little biographies on them and the impact of their work within their community. So we have a couple up on the website. Site already for February. And we've got a couple more coming up in March and we're going to be continuing that throughout the year. And it's just a really awesome way to point out really good organizations doing great work with amazing leaders. So I would encourage people to check out the blog on our website and to read a little bit about some of the amazing leaders that are out there.
Carol: Well, we will put a link in the show notes to that. So thank you so much. It was great having you on the podcast.
Elizabeth: it was great to be here. Thanks, Carol.
In episode 19 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Nancy Bacon discussed include:
Nancy Bacon is a teacher, instructional designer, and learning strategist who has worked for over 25 years in the nonprofit sector. She works with nonprofits, associations, and networks to strengthen how nonprofits are able to serve their communities. She has trained thousands of people in-person and online, speaks on learning and leadership, and writes books and blogs on topics at the intersection of learning and nonprofits.
Nancy also co-hosts the Nonprofit Radio Show.
Carol: Welcome Nancy, it's great to have you on the podcast.
Nancy: I'm delighted to be here with you.
Carol: Just to start us out, could you tell me what really drew you to the work that you do and what, what would you say is your why and what motivates you?
Nancy: when I first thought about this question, I was thinking, what is this work, this work being nonprofits. And, I think what drew me to that work is the same that draws many of us, and that is the desire to serve and to make the world a better place. But then I started to drill down into the question and what my work specifically is really at the intersection of nonprofits and learning. And so that got me really thinking about. the larger story. And I have to say that, that I have always been working with one foot in two places. So I'm always playing in two different sandboxes at the same time. And, even going back to like, you and I both went to Swarthmore and we had that experience and I was an economics, German literature, double major. And people thought that, that's crazy, but there was a desire to both play in the organizational development analytical world, but also to play in that world of the human story and language. So I have found that those two threads have carried me through and that, having been a teacher and created learning programs and all that, living in the world of learning, but also living in the world of nonprofits and so many nonprofit people are accidental non-profit people, right. They start because they care about something. And then all of a sudden they have to do that compliance stuff or read a balance sheet, or, have a board that misbehaves there's something there. I really was called to this work of working at the intersection of learning and nonprofits. And having a foot in both of those spaces and doing whatever I can to bring them together. Cause I think ultimately that's how nonprofit nonprofits are going to thrive.
Carol: Yeah. You talk about that intersection. And it sounds like you were a double major before that was super popular with everyone, everyone having a double major, but I appreciate how there are some people who are super focused and they have, they have one goal. They have a clear sense of their purpose. And then there are others of us and I'll include myself who meander a little bit. And, and I appreciate that sense of being in to, having to two focuses not necessarily only right. One. But why, why do you think is so important for nonprofit organizations and professionals?
Nancy: So if we think about like, what are the big issues we want for nonprofits, we want nonprofits to be sustainable. We want nonprofits to integrate equity into their daily lives. We want nonprofits to collaborate and we assume that they know how to do those things. We assume that it's just natural, that they figure out how to work together or that it's just intuitive to integrate equity and into their day-to-day lives. And we expect that while off, they're often really struggling, particularly now during COVID times, just those day-to-day activities of raising money and finding volunteers and keeping your board meeting that's hard enough. And then we put this other stuff on top of it. So. I believe that there's a whole world of understanding and knowledge and experience around adult learning around behavior change around psychology and how we move people to action. And that the only way we're ever going to achieve our nonprofit goals. Is, if we figure out how to take everything we know about learning and action and make sure that nonprofit people have that available to them, that, we've all been to those nonprofit trainings that are ghastly, where somebody who's a really good fundraiser is just telling you what want Y how to raise money. And so much time is wasted. if we could actually have excellence in learning every time we're going to get where we need to go with nonprofits, I think.
Carol: Yeah. I worked for an association for a while and, and the, the members were all people who worked with them. They worked in higher education and so they weren't, they weren't teachers, they weren't on the faculty side of things. They were on the student service side. And we had a very robust training program to train them in the basics of that field and all the very intricate and arcane knowledge that they had to have around immigration visas and all sorts of different technical issues. And We ended up having to build out a whole program to train all of our, essentially what we're subject matter experts into and train them how to actually help people learn what they already knew. And what was the, one of the most interesting things in working with some of those groups was how when you get a bunch of experts in the room, they want to talk about all the exceptions. They want to talk about the really interesting, intricate 10% of the cases that they experience. And so they want to share that with the audience, having forgotten that the audience doesn't even know the basics. And so, we kept having to steer them to the, what was to them was the boring 80%. but like, what are the actual fundamentals of this? And then how do you help people actually practice it? So it's not just this big data dump of information. But they actually have some, some way in the learning you're offering to, to practice what they're, you know what you're asking them to then go back to the office and apply.
Nancy: Absolutely. And, there's so much really interesting research around that. There's really interesting research around how information, how, like, what is knowledge and how does knowledge get created and what does prior knowledge, what you already know will dictate what you can know. And so what does that mean? If you have an expert in the room? There's another interesting statistic I read recently that experts tend to leave out 70% of what learners need to know. Well, okay.
Carol: So, I guess that it was 80% and then the research says it was 70. Okay.
Nancy: Yeah, but I mean, whatever that is, it just says that your best trainers are probably not your experts. I just did a curriculum development project this morning with wonderful people doing really important work in the world. And they are making so many assumptions that I, as an outsider, I keep asking what, may sound dumb questions, but they're truly honest questions that I'm trying to understand so that I can help them teach others about their work. So that's the stuff that if we can bring that research. Informed, adult learning practice into nonprofits, we are going to get, it's going to be so much easier. Yeah, because
Carol: There is so much that people have to learn, and often are either accidental fundraisers, accidental marketers, or accidental managers of boards, all of those things that come with nonprofit work. And yeah, there is no you don't just walk in the office and drink, drink the water and somehow you've learned it all. And then, so many, many organizations are offering training. But is it actually resulting in people learning and being able to do the work better when they get back to the office?
Nancy: That's a great question. And, and, and I think that's a culture shift. So within the nonprofit world, we have very much a consumption mentality when it comes to training. you need to know how to fundraise, go to a training. Oh, I went to a training, therefore there's some assumption that your performance is going to be different. So I think that a key piece to this is really moving to a place where we're outcome-based, we're performance-based are people actually doing the job differently because of whatever we've put into place. But I think the other culture shift that needs to happen is moving away from workshops as the. the pinnacle of training and I deliver a whole lot of workshops. This is, this is my bread and butter. And yet I am now consistently advising people to, to slow down with the workshops and do much more around templates and tools and job aids and micro learning and really understanding the workflow. It could be that trainings aren’t what's needed. Yeah, there's an, a myriad of other things that you can do to improve performance that's outside of a training.
Carol: Yeah, I'm thinking of an instance when I, I started a new job and the, the time that I started that job, the, the organization, it was a small organization and they had a big event coming up. So they were particularly overwhelmed at that moment. And I wanted to be able to help out and chip in with the team. And they gave me a very discreet task that had to do with the, the, the, the. The event that was coming up. And the fact that I had to go find that information based on an actual task than an actual product that was going to help the team. I actually remembered so many more of the things that I ended up having to go find. Then if I had sat in a room and people would just talk to me about it, all that engagement with it and acting, I think trainers know things about what, templates and tools and micro-learning and job aids. Can you, especially microlearning and job aids. Can you describe a little bit more about what you mean by that and what those are?
Nancy: Yeah, so it really, I mean, they really are learning when you need it, not learning when that training is being offered. So that notion that - and I particularly want to talk about not learning just when you need it, but when your colleagues need it. So for example, you want to improve how your board raises money. And so you could send your whole board to some training and maybe some fraction of your board will go. And whether they apply that training is pretty hit or miss instead, what you can do is record a short video with very outcome-based ideas. As a board, I want you to do these three things, a, B and C. And you make that video short enough that it fits within a board meeting. So we all train our boards to leave 10 minutes, 15 minutes for learning. And so why not provide them with the tools to fill that time and the support that they then need, so then job aids would then support that. So that would be, what do you need to do the job? And as you mentioned, you have a checklist. It could be, we talk a lot in the nonprofit where you go to meetings and Hey, you wrote that great fundraising letter. I stole it. And I'm using air quotes for the radio audience here. I stole it in order to because it was such a great fundraising letter, but that's a worked template. That is a worked example. It's a job aid and I think, yeah, that fine. That's working within that culture of sharing. So that's what I'm speaking of with job aids
Carol: Yeah. And the idea of - and making a video may sound intimidating, but I've started using, and this is a particular tool that's available right now. One called loom where you can just make little short videos, could just be a screen-share. Very easy. You push a button and it starts recording. And I've done that to tell team members, Oh, I'd you to do this thing and I'm going to show you how to do it. And they're never, well, you're not allowed to have, it would be more than five minutes or at least on this account. So that keeps me in that very short, very focused. And, and then, then it's not hard to do. Cause I think video. May sound intimidating, but if you keep it simple it doesn't, it doesn't have to be an, it can be, we can make videos on our phone and easily on a computer. So it's, it can be accessible for, for groups.
Nancy: It absolutely can. And all of us are zoom masters now, right? We all got the certification that we know how to do breakout rooms. And so I've done short videos on zoom where I all teach a class and I might have a little bit of homework and, or a little bit of explanation that I want to provide. So I'm just going to hop right back on zoom and record myself telling them something. And then I upload it to YouTube, so that they can access it that way. But I mean, there's tools all around us.
Carol: Right. Right. And what would you describe as a learning mindset for organizations?
Nancy: That's a great question. I think the first thing is to understand that that learning itself has research behind it. So. Education in general suffers from this problem. And it starts in K-12 education where we all went to school. So we all know what good school is. Right. And we're always anecdotal about it, what should happen in third grade? Well, when I was in third grade, this happened, or as soon as we have children, we then refer to that as our anecdotal experience. Right? Well, my third grader, X. Okay. And learning in general isn't professionalized - we don't consider it as a profession. We don't think about it in terms of, there are people who are actually experts in adult learning. And so when I think about workshop presenters or people who are training. I don't look just for content. We want excellent content. I want you to know your stuff, but I also want you to have that adult learning piece so that you are, you have that mindset, that, that teaching itself is a profession. It is something to be good at. So I think that's the first piece.
Carol: For sure. And how would you, you talked about that, the research being behind adult learning, what are some of the things, if folks are not familiar of some of the principles of adult learning, what would you name for them as a good starting place to, to think about and how they might shift their training even just a little bit so that it's more learning.
Nancy: Yeah. So some of the ideas that I love to play around with, so cognitive overload, where, we know this, our brains can only handle so much, so we know that intellectually, but how do we then integrate it in our PowerPoints? How do we integrate it into our delivery? Things that. The other thing that I love talking about is forgetting and memory that we tend to say, Oh, I told you that and you still haven't done it. What's wrong with you. And we don't really acknowledge the fact that people only, remember things in that we can do things to help them remember, and we can do things to decrease that forgetting curve. And that, that, that right there could set you up for more success. So those are just two ideas that I like to play with.
Carol: Yeah. And I mean, I don't think I remember anything anymore. I just rely on the electronic to-do lists that I update at the end of every day to make sure that I know what I'm supposed to do the next day.
Nancy: No, I think that's, we all rely on that. And yet we still obviously have. So much knowledge that we have gained over the years and all of that, I think so another point that I just want to bring up and it, because it goes to something I said earlier, and that is the research around fast thinking and slow thinking and that we tend to be very efficient minded. We got to just get it done. We tend not to make time for reflection. And it's the research by Daniel Kahneman and thinking fast and slow, that research and that Culture shift learning mindset is really going to help us to get where we need to go as a sector. So for nonprofits to actually embrace equity, to look at co collaboration, to look at ways to be sustainable we need that slow reflection time along with our fast thinking that we have just to get the job done.
Carol: And can you give me an example of what that slow thinking that slow, that reflection time might look like? In a week of, I don't know, a fundraiser.
Nancy: Yeah, well, and there's big chunks of time and, and small chunks of time and alone time and together time. So it might look like, keeping your Wednesdays free of all meetings so that you can slow down and think about something. It might mean at the end of every meeting with your staff, you might carve out an hour to just think about what happened there and what you're going to do, and really frame it around. What are the key questions that you need to get answered? So that's building in time for you as an individual to address that, that reflection. I love Paula Fraidy, the Brazilian sociologist who talks about that connection between reflection and action. That reflection with no action is, is some version of navel gazing, right? I'm paraphrasing and action with no reflection is uninformed. So you really need to have that reflection and action paired together. But in addition to that, I think it's important to reflect collectively, so to reflect together. And that might look like a board retreat. I'm sure you facilitate a lot of board retreats and gatherings and having just that right level of collective reflection so that people are sharing their ideas together. I think that's also really important for nonprofits.
Carol: Yeah. I mean, oftentimes that's when organizations bring in someone from the outside, whether it's a board retreat or for a strategic planning process, or to help them think through, what their, what their program outcomes are, what their theory of change is. And often folks are very focused on what the outcome of that process is going to be. But I think oftentimes it's the. The framing and the, the one giving people space to, to actually slow down and think, and have a shared conversation that can get to exactly what you were talking about before, with where you're under. You're you're, you're helping people say what their assumptions are, get those out loud and to, to see whether there's shared understanding across the group. And so for me as a consultant, The quality of the conversation and the process is as important as a good product at the end of it.
Nancy: I think that's really important. And I think that's where so good learning also has that level of accountability. I think a really interesting idea to think about is this whole idea of how to make learning, stick, how to make learning transfer happen such that not only do they learn stuff, but they do things differently later. I mean, there are so many examples all around us. so many people are learning how to, so for example, The people want to learn how to sew masks and, and help out there. So you need to have the goal I want to, so, 50 masks for frontline workers, and then you have that reflection time of, okay. I cut out that pattern out of the New York times, but I'm not really sure it's going to work. In fact, it didn't work the first time I tried it, so I had to remake it. And then there's that accountability piece that 's going to make sure that you follow through when you actually do what you say you're going to do. So what friend is going to call you to make sure you've got those 50 masks on?
Carol: Right. And then, that product at the end documents the agreements that people came through through the process. And so you can then check, check in on those and see, okay, are we, are we doing the things that we said we were going to do? And of course then evaluate, perhaps some of them are, Things have changed and we need to refresh this. They're not as relevant anymore. But it's that those processes really almost enable an organizational level learning where oftentimes people only think about learning as at the individual level.
Nancy: I'm really glad you brought that up because I think a key piece to this is that strategy. And I invite people to have their own learning strategy, over the next year. Hey, we're almost at the beginning of the year, you might think, over the course of 2021, what do I need to learn? And who's going to hold me accountable, but then you also have that organizational and I would even say sector level learning. So at the organizational level if you want your board to help you raise money, for example, What does your learning program look to support that? What is the group learning individual learning? How are you going to really look at behavior change and how are you going to support it? Not just the learning in terms of workshops, but those job aids that we talked about earlier, those tools that are going to help at a sector level. I also think that we need a strategy and a lot of our nonprofit state associations or a sector level. Associations are hopefully trying to move the needle on things. And those guys having a learning strategy is also really important for that alignment so that we actually get the movement that we need.
Carol: And what are you seeing in terms of that? Are you seeing collaborations across those organizations to, to try to create that or,
Nancy: I'm experiencing that the concept of a learning strategy is a new idea that a lot of, a lot of associations or nonprofits or consultants even don't quite yet have that learning strategy. I see a lot of, of these various groups, just, they put out a lot of work. So they're either doing trainings or they're producing, white papers or checklists or whatever. But I don't necessarily see that there's a strategy behind it. It's more of a, I, what do you think, would you say, is there a strategy behind stuff or is it just churning stuff out? I mean,
Carol: I think there are different levels of sophistication in that arena. And yeah, I think, for a lot of organizations, if they have the luxury of having someone who's actually in charge of training or learning people come to that with various backgrounds and a lot of people don't necessarily have a background in, in adult learning. And so they replicate what they've seen at many. Conferences, trainings, workshops and all that. It's so much easier to ask presenters to do something that is very much for the participant, when I have heard other people refer to it as the sit in and get just listening to lectures. And it, or panel discussions, all those things that we're very familiar with in terms of conferences. And, and it's very few organizations I would say, are doing a lot that really aligns with how we know, that brings that, that knowledge around how, what we know about how people learn and how to, how to deliver that. So that, so that there is some behavior change. And you, you talked about behavior change. I'm wondering what are some things that the research says actually supports that?
Nancy: Well, we talked about that accountability piece that that's, that's important. There's some really interesting research around identity and. And moving people to, to be who they think that they are. So, really interesting research from Robert Cialdini and Pre-Suasion for example, that I hold up as a great example in the nonprofit sector. So his research, I forget the exact numbers, but it's something if I ask you for your email address on the street, would you give it to me? Chances are no. If I say, Carol, are you an adventurous person? You'll probably say yes. May I have your email address? And the rate by which you'll give me your email address goes way up. And why is that? I've invited you into a certain identity that you now want to live up to. And Robert Cialdini provides lots of examples of that, and there's a great leading learning podcast where they interview him. For that. So, so, so that directly ties to the nonprofit world. When I first heard that podcast, it was at a time where leading board curriculum designers were talking about, the failure of board members that board members were not living up to their jobs. They were not raising money. They were not doing advocacy. There was some report card that came out that said they were failing. And I, I just found that so sad. Not that board members are supposedly feeling, but that we missed the boat on inviting, calling out the courage that I believe all board members have. Board members are incredibly courageous to step forward and serve their community on the whole. And I just need you to be a little bit more courageous. Will you call your legislator? Will you call your friend and help, fill up that table at our next gala. Why are we not using this notion of identity to lift people up and to celebrate who they are rather than push them down. So that's like, that's a long answer to your question about behavior change, but that's one little piece that sparked some ideas for me.
Carol: Well, I guess that's an old why you, I was just in a, in a session today where I was doing I'm in the middle of a strategic planning process with the organization and Today's session was helping them do visioning. So who do they want to be in five years? And, they gotta elaborate that the things that they came up with were way beyond the capacity of the organization as it is today, but just imagining those things. I think, yeah, as you say, creates those aspirational lenses to then say, okay, so what are the three things we can do? that, that we do have funding for that? We do have a capacity for that'll get us a little closer to that aspiration. I'm not, I'm not one for having plans that are so aspirational that they're, that they're just pie in the sky. But I think for a moment within the process to invite that bigger. Like, what's the really big thing we're trying to do here can be
Nancy: helpful. Right. And, and inviting people we are an organization that is learningful. That is curious. That is that walks the talk. When it comes to equity, inviting people to say, we are this then invites everyone to really get up behind that. And that's when you start to have behavior change. I mean, another example, being James Clear, who wrote the book Atomic Habits, he talks about if you're trying to change your behavior around exercise, it's one thing to change your routine. It's another thing to change your goals, but what he cites as, as what all the evidence says is changing your, or naming your identity. I am someone who exercises. That is more likely to get you into the habit of exercising and, and habits are where it's at, when it comes to behavior change, right? we don't want people to do things once we want them to do it every time. So really understanding what we know about habits can really move boards in the nonprofits in general, in the right direction.
Carol: As you were talking about the boards and the research is they're failing, they're not doing what they're supposed to do. There's so much angst around what role does, is the board supposed to play? How are they supposed to work with staff? And it does sometimes feel a little punitive. So, what is, what does a courageous board look like? And yeah. And then you also named some very concrete things. And I want you to do this one thing. I want you to make one phone call to a friend to do this, so it's not only an aspiration, but also something very concrete that is doable. You can put on your to-do list, you can check it off and get that, whatever the hormone is. The ha when you, when you accomplish something to feel good about yourself and then want to do the
Nancy: next thing. Exactly. And then you want to come to the next board meeting. You want to, you want to participate? I have an experience with a board where every meeting is so incredibly negative that that many of us have just stopped. Paying much attention to it. How do we flip that? How do we make it such that we want to give, we want to come together. That's all, when I talk about learning, I want to be clear and I should have said this right at the top, I'm talking about every single thing it takes to move people to action. So not just learning in terms of knowledge, but learning in terms of knowledge, skill, behavior, and really changing our practice over and over so that we're, we're delivering on whatever it is we're supposed to be doing.
Carol: Yeah. And so often, I mean, there's all the nuts and bolts things that people have to learn to actually run the organization. But so often the programs that are being designed are there, their ultimate goal is to produce some behavior change with the people that they're working with. And too often, you'll see, the, the, the outcome as they understand this and they understand that and they understand the other. And of course, what we also understand about understanding is that it doesn't necessarily produce action.
Nancy: You're absolutely right. I love the article and I forget, I think it was Brian Washburn who, who referred me to it a long time ago and that is change or die. And it came out by fast company. an online article that I read and it is so interesting because it talks about, if I asked you to fundamentally change your life, Change what you eat, how you exercise, blah, blah, blah, would you do it? And I run this in trainings and people are often like, yeah, of course I would. Well, the research says, no, you would not. Even if you were going to face a really painful, open-heart surgery, you would not change your ways. And so my laugh line when I deliver a board training is so if you're not going to change your life, your life to stay alive. Why would you change your ways for a volunteer gig that meets once a month on Thursdays? You're not right. So these are the kinds of things that I think are really interesting to think about internally, as you say, we're pretty good at thinking about our clients or, how do we get those folks out there in the community to do what we need them to do? We sometimes think about that, but then how do we think about internally within our organization as well?
Carol: And I think, as you talked about the fast thinking and slow thinking, if people are just running at a million miles an hour all the time they'll keep, they'll keep doing, they'll keep producing, but they're not taking that time to reflect on how this is working? How might we be doing it differently? What have we learned from all of this that we've done in the last, whatever number of funds and all of this sounds? I mean, I think it's sometimes I can, I can just imagine a little eye-rolling going on Oak to consultants talking about this time to have reflection. I'm trying to keep my, my organization afloat. So, what, what, where do I have the time? But I think even big organizations that have lots of resources, there is this pressure to just be moving all the time. And so I don't actually think it often doesn't necessarily have to do with the amount of resources, but more to do with the commitment to take the time.
Nancy: Well, there's certainly the commitment to take the time. And then how do you use that time? That I think that I don't want to, I mean, I, if you have the time to sit around and just reflect emptily with a journal and just imagine. Okay. But most people don't have that time. So then what I would say is even micro bits of reflection around framing some big questions in front of you. And, I've been teaching a curriculum development class, it's been super fun. And what I'm, what I'm trying to get people to to think about is how, how do you live in that divergent phase? And this from strategic planning, right? how do you get people to just. Then time in that divergent phase before they then start closing doors in the convergent phase. And how do you work on that skill of being comfortable in the unknown, being comfortable in that ambiguity, being comfortable, just playing around with ideas. And so I think, carving out that reflection time with a very clear sense that for 30 minutes, I want to be in that divergent phase to just play around with all the toys in the toy box. And then after 30 minutes, I can start to, to narrow the scope as to what, what we will carry forward into our organization.
Carol: Yeah. And I think well just for one. Convergent and divergent, divergent being opening it up and, and thinking of all the different possibilities convergent as you converge and come to some agreements start calling down. Yeah, I'm often when I'm talking to people about brainstorming and some people love it and some people hate it. And so for the people who hate it, I was like, well, we're holding to do it for a set amount of time. Mm. And the reason that we say things like, there are no bad ideas, which of course we know there are bad ideas. You just can't do both at the same time. Your brain needs to be able to go wild and then come back together. But even thinking about the session that I did today and we were. We were less, we were, the very first session was all going wide. And I warn them ahead of time. We are, we are exploring today. We are not deciding. And then this session today was like, we were doing a little bit of both. So, but still, mostly on the. Exploring side. And there was definitely at the end, folks who are like, I'm really eager to get to action. I'm eager to get tangible and make some decisions. And I think even just warning them that that's where we would be in that two hours helps a little bit with that sense of can we just decide already.
Nancy: Right. But it, and it's that's where it's such a waste of time to make the wrong decision. So there's times to make decisions and times not to, but, but I think, I mean, you asked earlier about what's in that learning mindset. And I think part of that learning mindset is. Is an appreciation for playing with ideas, a curiosity, a desire to play in that space where anything is possible, but having a framework for doing that. So whether it's limiting the time or model thinkers is a new online list of great ideas. And I love it. And they just came out with a frame storming idea where it's not brainstorming open-ended, but it's frame storming where there's kind of, you put a frame around it with key questions. Another example I heard recently was, what ideas would solve a problem, but get you fired. I love that. I love that because it was funny. My husband's a school principal and he started to have lots of fun with that, what are, what would solve the problem, but get you fired, and then the follow-up question is, ‘okay, well, what would have to happen to make those things happen?’ Like, then you drill down into each of those ideas and there are nuggets in there. you may not go all the way to the idea that would get you fired, but there may be little nuggets in there that are worth pursuing and that could save you time. It could save you money. So those people who want to rush to conclusions and make those decisions, they may regret that if they see some of these other ideas come out.
Carol: Yeah. And I think, yeah, brainstorming Dunwell definitely has those framing questions that, that sets some parameters and kind of, what's the playing field that we're on right now. What, what are we considering? What's inbounds what's out of bounds, that thing. So at the end of each episode, I play a little game where I ask an icebreaker question. And so I've got three out here and I'm going to choose one. So if you could buy your dream house, what is one weird room or feature you would have?
Nancy: I would have a little artist studio. Not that I'm a particularly good artist, but I hack at it. And I sew, I paint, and I don't clean up afterwards. So if I had my own room, I would not have to clean up.
Carol: Well, I'd be in agreement with you. That's one of the things I might do in the same space that I'm in right now is just to create, although I don't think I could do painting because it would be a little too messy, but just to, just to play around and I, and I refuse the term artists, cause it feels that's way too much pressure. I'm just somebody who plays around with this stuff. So
Nancy: yes, but, but I'm so glad that that you do, because to go back to our, our topic here of learning is we all want to have that beginner's mindset and there's no better way to have a beginner's mindset than to, than to play around in a, in a motor, a medium that's that doesn't come naturally. So that's so fun.
Carol: Yeah. Yeah. So what are you excited about? What's up next for you what's emerging in the work that you're doing.
Nancy: I'm really excited about three workshops I'm working on in March. I have two with my colleague, Scott Schaefer. He is a finance wizard and we're running a class on mergers and on finance strategy. So both. Excellent. And then to go to our conversation earlier, I am teaching a learning strategy class and I am very excited about that.
Carol: Well, excellent. People can learn more about that. And we'll put links in the show notes so that you can, everyone can find Nancy and find out all the good stuff that she's doing so well, thank you so much. It was great having the conversation.
Nancy: I've really enjoyed it. Thanks so much.
In episode 18 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guests, Shelley Sanner and Alanna McKee discussed include:
- Trends facing associations, including the need for greater personalization
- How associations have adjusted to the virtual environment
- What the future of work could like and how associations could contribute to the workforce development of the fields they serve
Shelley Sanner, CAE, MA, Senior Vice President, Industry Relations:
As senior vice president of industry relations, Shelley fosters knowledge-sharing and partnerships to promote innovation and excellence within the association industry. Her main areas of focus include identifying association challenges and trends and translating them into resources that benefit the community at-large. She also coordinates McKinley’s presence at events and within industry publications to ensure that we serve as a resource to the community on best practices and other insights.
Before joining McKinley in 2007, Shelley served as Membership Director at a higher education association. On a national level, Shelley has served in various volunteer leadership positions, taught courses and presented at many industry events. She has a Master’s in liberal studies from Georgetown University and an undergraduate degree from Juniata College, where she majored in French and education.
Alanna Tievsky McKee, MSW, Director:
As a director within the consulting department, Alanna leads client engagements designed to maximize organizational efficiency and mission impact. She brings a creative and thoughtful approach to each of her clients, combining skills acquired through her training and experience as a consultant, clinician, and coach. During her time at McKinley, she has nurtured an expertise in member engagement and retention, strategic planning, governance and staff and volunteer leadership facilitation.
Alanna has worked in and with the nonprofit sector for more than a decade and has supported nearly 100 unique associations as a member of the McKinley team. She is a social worker by trade and feels passionate about helping individuals and organizations solve challenges and reach their full potential. Alanna holds an MSW from the University of Pennsylvania with a concentration in nonprofit management and a B.A. in developmental neuropsychology from the University of Rochester.
Contact our Guests
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Shelley and Alanna to the podcast. Great to have you on today.
Shelley Sanner and Alanna McKee: Thanks for having us.
Carol: I’d just like to start out and for each of you, ask what drew you to the work that you do, what motivates you and what would you say is your why? Shelly, why don't you go first.
Shelley: I'm thinking of my colleague who is waiting for their CAE exam results right now. So that's probably top of mind but yeah, the CAE was really a pivotal moment for me. I passed the exam and I was in a large higher ed association. I realized that I knew a lot more after having taken the exam than I did before. I wanted to become more of a generalist and in a larger association, sometimes it's hard to grow and move up and have more oversight over areas. A friend and colleague of mine through ASAE reached out and said, ‘I think you might be interested in my company.’ And it was McKinley. That’s what brought me to McKinley 13 years ago.
Carol: Could you just tell people what the CAE and ASAE are?
Shelley: Sure! ASAE is an association for association professionals. So anyone working in an association at any level could join, and the CAE is Certified Association Executive, and it means that you've made a commitment to stay in the field. Technically it means that you have aspirations to one day lead an association, but a lot who passed the exam or take the exam, moved from industry roles to consulting like I did.
Carol: How about for you Alanna?
Alanna: Yeah! I took a fortuitous path to get to McKinley. I started my career as a clinical social worker, working with students in schools and ran into so many systemic policy issues that, at a certain point, I decided I needed to make change at a higher level. So I went into an association and worked on mental health policy. Eventually I heard about McKinley and really saw it as an opportunity to affect change of the world at an even higher level than I was doing at my job at the association. I'm a firm believer that associations make the world go round. They impact every industry and profession that we have, and I see my role as supporting associations doing their best work. So I'm really driven by my opportunity to better every profession or industry that I touch throughout that association.
Carol: So often I feel like I have to explain to people what associations are often starting like: well, what's the field that you're in? Then, so are you a member of an organization that brings everybody in your field together? Okay. Well that means that you're a part of an association. And if one were to fall apart, someone else would say, ‘shouldn't we all be working together towards common goals’ and they'd recreate it. So, what, what would you say since you've got that higher-level view of working with lots of different clients in the association space, what would you say are some of the key trends that you've been noticing over the last couple of years as you've been working with clients?
Alanna: Sure. So one, is this a real focus from the member standpoint on customer service and customer experience? I think this is a trend that we're seeing outside of the association space, but just generally in how we like to operate with the organizations and businesses that we buy from, or the restaurants we go to. I think Amazon has really created an incredible standard in terms of the customer experience. It is so easy to buy something from Amazon and our expectations as a customer or stakeholder. We want our association to deliver that same experience and ensure our website that the opportunity to engage in education, networking that we're consistently delivering a really strong customer experience with best in class customer service is necessary. So that's definitely one of the themes I'm noticing. Another would be that this previous approach of ‘one size fits all’ really doesn't work anymore. Our associations are becoming more diverse in terms of the stakeholder groups that are encompassed within an association. Those groups have very unique needs and preferences that we have to address. It's our responsibility to have a comprehensive understanding of the unique groups within our membership and deliver experiences that are meaningful and that support those groups’ needs to the best of our ability.
Carol: Shelly, do you have other observations?
Shelley: It gets to the heart of the value proposition. I think it's really customized because it's something people have created for themselves. I've been thinking recently about what I'm missing right now in my professional career and my professional development. It's the fact that I used to go to face-to-face meetings and, organically or intentionally, run into a lot of people I knew. That was the same network that introduced me to McKinley and got me my job. It's the same network that has mentored me, has supported me, has taught me things has really upped the game in some cases. I feel like this past year - and hopefully on into the future - there's been this renewed focus on humanity like that. We are human beings and people have really struggled over the past year. There's been more transparency around those struggles and honesty around that. There's also the need to connect with others, which is such a basic need, but it's something we realized we took for granted. I wonder, how can associations take the model that they have in place and this incredible ability to convene people, and through no direct action, connect people together just to provide a forum for people to meet each other. What does it mean to young professionals who don't have that? They're not going to face-to-face meetings and making connections with future employers or mentors or peers. What does that gap look like and how can association really get at the heart of humanity and get to the heart of the emotional or psychological challenges and struggles that people have and really create a stronger emotional bond and build that loyalty and that engagement with the association? I don't have an answer to that. It's actually something that's been in the back of my head, but it really struck me recently that I think there's something there because the associations are well poised to leverage that and strengthen that sense of community.
Carol: Yeah. But in terms of that humanization and being so limited now, in terms of only being able to connect people with people remotely through screens, through virtual meetings, the things that work that are hard to do and yet easy to do in terms of delivering content and information, and knowledge which has always been central to associations, has been able to continue and organizations where I participated in virtual conferences this year. Organizations did a great job of pivoting quickly to that. And yet all that hidden part, or maybe it wasn't visible because we hadn't yet missed it. It was that thing that suddenly was gone: the face-to-face meeting of the person that you meet at the cocktail hour, or in line for coffee, or all those kinds of things. In the virtual space, having to be much more intentional about how you help people create those connections, I think it can be done. I think it just hasn't - I don't know that it hasn't been created, I'm sure that there's somebody who's doing a good job in that already - but there are new tools or new ways of convening that need to be imagined so that that social aspect and that emotional aspect you're talking about can really be addressed and incorporated in a more intentional and explicit way, because I think that that desire to associate often comes from not wanting to feel alone in whatever struggles you're having in your profession.
Shelley: Yeah. And if I could give another example, because I realized there were two things embedded in what I was saying, one is that we're all individuals and that humanization piece, and then the idea of community and connecting. I remember doing a focus group - it was probably 10 years ago - it was for a healthcare association, extremely high-achieving medical professionals, doctors. I remember in the focus group a woman saying, ‘when this association first introduced a dedicated room for nursing mothers, my loyalty went up exponentially. And I knew I could continue to come to this meeting and it changed my whole sense of how this association understood and was accommodating and thinking about me.’
I think about that now with parents trying to work and be successful and continue to advance in their careers with their kids at home, struggling and trying to learn. Does the association acknowledge that formally to show that we understand that this is a challenge and then try to create a community of support or try to help solve those challenges for trade association. What's the future of the workplace? We're trying to figure that out at McKinley. Could a trade association help its members? Figure that out and come up with a few models. That's being able to rapidly adapt by paying attention and listening to what people really need as individuals or as a collective.
Carol: And I think that goes to something that Alanna said around that customization that people expect and that personalization of dialing into the subsets of membership. So the woman who talked about the organization having a room for nursing. She may not have reflected the majority of that association at that point, and yet it was meeting a need that she had. So it helped her feel more connected, and that sense of belonging.
Alanna: Shelly, your thoughts also crystallize another theme that I've been seeing, not only in the association space, but generally the world, which is that younger generations are really focused on what companies or organizations are doing to better the world. Tom's is a great example of that. The shoe brand that donates a pair of shoes for everyone that's bought. For those who are super bowl fans, you've probably heard that Coke and Budweiser and several other organizations are not having commercials to promote their products this year. They are reallocating that money to support communications around the COVID-19 vaccine. That is a clear way that they're taking a stand to say, ‘hey, we hear you world. And we're going to do our part to support our communities, to support the health of our communities and better the world.’ Associations are perfectly positioned to do that same work, whether it is, volunteer opportunities for members, or thinking about how their specific industry perhaps impacts the environment. It will be increasingly important that associations consider how they can not just support their specific profession or industry, but their communities, country, or world at large, because this is something that's increasingly important to their customer base and may make or break the decision to engage as a member or customer.
Carol: Yeah. And when you look at the research around what motivates people, having a sense of a connection to purpose and mission is really key. I think younger generations, they're just more willing to put that upfront where folks in the past may not have felt like they had the agency to say ‘no, I need that.’ Yeah. What’s Shelly’s perspective on that?
Shelley: I agree with that. I was thinking about one of the other themes that's all over the literature and people are talking about it quite a bit. It relates less to the mission of the organization, or the brand, or the position of the organization. And that's been fascinating to watch, which associations are in this incubator. Over the past year, the whole world was in an incubator. The world changed so rapidly and radically. I mean, we all knew something was coming at McKinley of course, we said, ‘there's gonna be another downturn,’ economists were saying that also, but who would have ever thought it would have looked like it did and that it would have had so many prongs to it that fundamentally changed how we lived our lives every day. We've been really fascinated by associations in their response to that. And associations are made up of people who lead or execute, and this whole idea of creating an association that is something different from what it is today. So I think that the majority of association professionals we might talk to would say, ‘well, we should be more nimble and we should be more diversified.’ And I think that that is certainly a lesson learned. I think sometimes there are pitfalls of categorizing it or labeling it in that way, because we know that a lot of associations that were really diversified in their revenue portfolios actually struggled throughout COVID because those non-dues products were not successful. They didn't see the same numbers or had to really reduce fees for them. There seems to be the shift back to the core membership and how important that is as a concept, but also how important it is to have some dues revenue, not 95% dependency on dues, but also not 95% dependency on a trade show and the sponsorships that come with a trade show and everything affiliated with that. Then the idea of a nimble organization. We're definitely seeing that. It's one thing to say, ‘let's be more nimble,’ but how do you really create that environment and create the processes to support that? In some cases, how do you create the mindset and the people who are leading it, or the people who are working for that organization. That's been fascinating to watch and there are certainly resources out there that help create the discipline around it. The characteristics of CEOs or other leaders that translate in the depth into that type of a culture. I think change management is a big piece of it. How do you actually move that organization in the direction more than just the systems you might put in place, but it's certainly the culture and the change management. And then creating a structure that can ensure that the organization can continue to adapt in the future as it needs to, there's a lot of associations that look very similar to what they did 20 years ago or 10 years ago. There's not a lot of impetus to change an association sector.
Carol: Also, structurally there's a lot of things that actually impede any kind of nimbleness or being able to change rapidly. It's almost like the purpose of the Senate: to slow everything down, like the distributed democracy or the board, the relationship between the board and the leadership team and all of those different stakeholders that you have to take into consideration just means that everything takes longer. It is something like a crisis that then enables organizations to rapidly move from one state to another, where there were a lot of organizations that had been doing online learning for the last two decades, but it was always a minority of organizations, maybe a small portion of what they were doing. And then suddenly everybody had to figure out how to do it.
Alanna: Yeah, this idea of being nimble and agile, it's just so important considering the rapid pace of change going on in the world today and the volatility of our markets and industries there. Shelly touched on. Some really critical points around the culture piece and change management. When we talk about that and McKinley, this idea of having a nimble culture, we're asking, are we empowering our staff to execute their role? Do we have a culture of risk-taking and inquiry? Those are the kinds of building blocks to create this culture of being able to execute your work and doing it efficiently and effectively. Governance is also a huge part of this as well. Associations are very good at having bylaws that haven't been touched in years outside of having more and more policies and regulations added to them. So it's a great opportunity to dust those off and see, we built systems that support rapid decision-making and change. Or have we created a system that slows us down and prevents that agile, nimble execution?
Carol: I really appreciate what you're saying about, it's easy to say ‘we should be more nimble. We should be able to move and be innovative and all of those things, big big catch words, but really digging into what are the behaviors, what are the mores within an organizational culture that actually supports that? Or does the opposite, right? If it's not okay for anyone to make a mistake and admit it, you're not going to have a real risk-taking culture then.
Alanna: And, in order to be nimble and agile and stay effective, your organization also needs to have a solid strategic plan. So I think that the idea of having a strategic plan has become increasingly important as well. Knowing what your organization's goals are for the next three years, let's say, and having a clear charge for staff volunteer leaders. Ensuring alignment from top to bottom, for those organizations that don't have a strategic plan and are saying, well, I just don't know that this is the right time because of the volatility that's going on in the marketplace. Rather pace of change. Well, strategic plans are also meant to be nimble and agile. They're not something that's set in stone and put on the shelf. They should be revisited quarterly or yearly to make sure that they're still appropriate. Given what's going on in the world around you, there's something that can be changed, but it's that guiding light that is going to unify the individual, the staff and volunteer leaders that work on your organization to ensure that we're all reaching that common goal. And for those organizations that do have an existing strategic plan that was perhaps created before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it's time to dust that off and take a look and, and make sure that it's still appropriate. Given what's going on in the world around you, I've worked with a handful of organizations. That needed to take a hard look. And in some cases it meant new priorities and letting go of others. For some, it was that the priority, these didn't change, but how the association was going to achieve those priorities, that shifted the approach. And having that clear plan to guide the organization forward I think, is critical. Then having the systems in place to execute your work in a nimble and agile way rounds it out.
Carol: Yeah. I think there's a temptation to throw the baby out with the bath water with, well, it's, everything's changing so fast right now. We can't possibly do planning. But yeah, strategic planning is more about setting some intention, setting some direction, creating some parameters, and it actually does help to what you were talking about before of empowering employees. If they know what the whole organization is moving towards and they have clarity around that. Then they have more agency to be able to step into their role and really fully execute it.
Alanna: That's exactly right.
Shelley: It's ironic but, to be more nimble, you really have to be more disciplined.
Carol: Say more about that because I think most people wouldn't see those two coming together.
Shelley: Being able to have a level of nimbleness requires an upfront. Dialogue and investment of time and development of structure to guide that otherwise nimbleness could take you in a lot of different directions with people moving within their departments into different areas and interpreting things differently. So it's like creating the glue that will bind everything together and then really. Putting it all together and having it be more solid. And another way to look at this is the re-skilling of professions and industries. That advocacy is always really important to associations. I mean obviously, the lobbying that happens, the presence on the Hill, those fly-ins that associations have, where they bring their members together to meet with Congress is so critical because people feel marginalized in their roles or they feel like they are not getting their burdensome regulations, or they're not being acknowledged in the way that they need to be. I think about all the hiring that Amazon is doing, and particularly in the shipping and delivery area, it's guaranteed that those people are going to be out of work within the next couple of years, because Amazon is absolutely going to automate that. They're going to automate delivery. They're going to automate shipping and packing. And so what happens to those people who during a crisis, struggled to find work and maybe found that field and entered that industry and now are going to have to reinvent themselves. It absolutely happened for meeting planners. This year. So it happens within the association community, but then it's also happening within the industry and the field. And if an association is not tight in terms of its own focus and its own approach to looking at the products and services it's offered, it's going to really struggle to be able to lead the industry or the field forward as that profession changes. So there are two ways of looking at the importance of nimbleness and looking at the importance of being disciplined to get to the nimble place.
Carol: Yeah. And I think going back to what you were saying before, in terms of being involved in workforce development and thinking about the field more broadly, you're serving the field. How are you part of essentially leading the field and being ready for things that are coming down the pike and making those necessary changes? What would you say are some of the ways we've been talking about them? What about other changes that the associations need to make to really adapt to these trends that we've been talking about this morning?
Alanna: I'd say one is really making a commitment to leveraging data, to improve your organization's performance. That's everything from collecting market research to understanding the needs of your membership so that you can deliver that customized experience to collecting data, to inform your strategic plan and tracking your progress towards achieving your goals.
Carol: So, Shelly: adaptations that associations are having to make in light of these changes, in light of these trends?
Shelley: I definitely agree with Alanna. We haven't talked about inclusion and diversity, but I mean, how can we get through a conversation without mentioning it? And associations are struggling to capture that demographic information, not everyone wants to share it, but I think there's so much to learn from this whole DEI movement, because a lot that's happening around that. It has to be more than just a statement or pledge. It has to be action. Well, that's the case for anything that you promise to your membership or make a commitment to advance for them? Capturing data and thinking about a baseline. If an association didn't capture data before COVID, it would probably be pretty disappointing because you couldn't go back and see how things changed or you can't necessarily see action and outcome and how those might be correlated because of something that you did. So I definitely agree. The data is really important. Obviously the mental health aspect of our current climate and how leaders can continue to rally volunteers and staff. I read an article recently about managers and leaders really trying to get into the thick of it with their staff and their teams, because it's not going to be enough to say, Oh, we're going to get through this. Like people realize this is very prolonged. And even when it gets better, it's not going to be better in the sense of what we knew before. So how to adapt the approach to communication and transparency and engagement of a team and motivating a team. I think that's going to need to change. And then I would just say an association really needs to look at its systems and its structure and its business model. So again, like so many organizations just get burnout or excited about the next new thing. And if you take some of these trends, we're talking about coming into a nimble organization, or really having an impact around DEI or the value proposition and being more customer centric, like a lot was talking about. You can't just do that for a couple of months and then move on to a new trend. Those have to be really embedded within the organization. People need to know how to execute on that. There needs to be a spotlight on that and accountability around that so that the organization can really fully realize the impact of it.
Carol: Anything you wanted to add Alanna?
Alanna: Yeah. So I couldn't agree more now is that a time to really invest in the organization to ensure that you're able to capitalize on these opportunities and, and thrive during this challenging time. So making sure that your staff have what they need to execute their role, that the systems are in place to support them, that they have a clear charge that they have the resources they need. Governance is another really important area that I think often gets overlooked. Our volunteer leaders are critical to the success of our organization and how much time have we invested in ensuring that they can do their best work. So do they have the orientation and training? They need to understand their role and how they're going to support the organization. Do you have ongoing training to refine the skills necessary to execute their role? Do they have a clear charge? And are they being held accountable for the work within their committee or the work of the board? I did now, was it a great time to invest in those foundational elements of our organization? Because ultimately they are critical to the success of our governance and of our staff and ensuring that we're able to execute on all of the work that we've, that we've just described.
Carol: I think it's all about moving to being more intentional about those things, because especially as the face-to-face gathering together where those things might have happened a little more informally they, they need to be embedded and, and planned for without, without being able to rely on that face-to-face -- informal mentoring that might happen or other training that might happen.
Shelley: I was going to say, we don't necessarily need to include this, but I feel like I would really like to share it that last time it was at an HOA virtual board meeting. And it's just people from my community, the few who are willing to give us some time. And I, I really flipped my perspective and because the secretary probably talked for 90% of the agenda, And I thought, this is so relevant and familiar because we see it at McKinley with boards, and we can, it's really palpable when you go into a board meeting and you have. Individuals who are, have had a career of being highly involved in volunteer leadership roles, or they've been forced to really look with oversight across their own organizations, just by nature of the role versus those that haven't had a lot of experience to that. And it's no judgment on those people. They're just not as familiar. And if you step into board and there's a culture that's been set and you start talking about. You know the color of the table clothes or where you're going to take the next annual meeting. You think that that's your role to play? And so what Alanna said about board orientation, it's such a small thing, but it is like an essential thing to make sure that volunteer leaders know what they need to do. And also that they're set up for success because you're not going to be successful without having more information than an understanding of, of where you need to focus.
Carol: And I think so often organizations really focus on orienting people to the organization itself and the work, and they forget to orient board members to their role from a governance perspective. So that brings us to a close here. Normally at the end of each episode, I play a little bit of a game and just ask one random icebreaker question. Since we mentioned Amazon at the top of the episode, I'll ask this question. What was the last product you returned?
Alanna: That's a great question. I'm pretty sure that the last item I returned was a mattress topper. I have a wonderful mother-in-law. She is fantastic. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. And we drove down for the holidays so that she could see her new Grant's son. But her guest bed is very uncomfortable. And so we purchased a mattress topper in advance. We were so excited with ourselves. We finally got ahead of it. And in order that mattress topper, and we ordered the wrong size. So we had to shove that back in the box and send it back to Amazon. And that's, that's. The last thing I can think of off the top of my head.
Shelley: Well, first of all, I want to say that I just read an article about what happens to returns of major department stores or a place like Amazon. And it's actually alarming. That a certain percentage of it just gets destroyed, destroyed because it's not worth it for them to try to reuse it. So that makes me think twice about returning things. But actually the last thing I tried to return and was not successful doing was this polish for, I have like an aged bronze front door. I had my siding power wash this past summer. They didn't do a good job and they stripped some of the finish off of the front door handles and backdoor handles. So I bought this thing that had a great review online and it actually made the problem worse. Just return it out of spite. And there was some restriction around it so that they couldn't actually return it.
Carol: Yeah. That's often the challenge. Like they make it very challenging to do that, probably because of the reason that you're talking about, it doesn't serve them for you to return the item. So for each of you what's, what are you excited about? What's coming up for you and your work? What's emerging?
Shelley: Well, I have roots in membership. So when I worked at an association, I was in the membership department. And before that I worked with students on a college campus. And so I've always been really interested in that concept of serving. At McKinley, over the past year, we've definitely developed more content and more resources. And I just can't help myself. I have to think from that membership perspective, even though we're a consulting firm, how could we take more knowledge that we're gathering at McKinley and translate it into something that truly is public access. Anyone can benefit from it. And we also have it ourselves to archive because knowledge management is really hard in a consulting firm. At least it's been hard for us. People are out doing really good things and how to capture that and to share it across the organization. It's something that we're very aware we're not good at. And our staff tell us we're not good at it. So so yeah, I would say that's the future. How to develop more than resources for the association community.
Carol: How about you Alanna?
Alanna: I'm really excited about the fact that McKinley's taken a lot of time over the past several months to take a look inside and figure out what can we do better to support our staff. We have - I mean, I'm biased - but we have a phenomenal staff. We really have some brilliant, passionate individuals who work for the firm. And we've changed over time and recognized that our structure and some of our systems like I was talking about previously, just aren't allowing our staff to do the best work and and, and fully use their, their potential. So we're doing a lot of internal work to better support our staff and highlight the incredible intellect that we have. So that really excites me.
Carol: Yeah. I mean, oftentimes, so people don't see that as particularly sexy and exciting, but it's so fundamental. And then Shelly, what you were talking about in terms of garnering those insights across multiple projects to be able to see that next level of what's not just particular to one project that you're working with one client, but what are we seeing across multiple clients? So that's, that's exciting and something, I think there'll be a really huge resource to the field. So thank you both. So, thanks. Thanks a lot for coming on. It was great to talk to you.
Shelley: Thank you, Carol.
Alanna: Thanks so much.
In episode 17 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Wendy Wolff discussed include:
- How leading a non-profit differs from leading a for-profit business
- Awareness vs. action
- Why people are scared of evaluation
- Assumptions made when working with communities
- Changing social norms
- Where to start evaluation on an organizational level
- The barriers to evidence-based testing
Activating and coordinating community responses to the HIV/AIDS epidemic was how Wendy Wolff began her career in the nonprofit sector. Her early career helped her to build a strong understanding about the value and role of the community in program planning and policy development. She brings nearly 25 years of diverse consulting experiences to her role as Director of Strategic Engagement for Maryland Nonprofits. Wendy has collaborated with government agencies; universities; non-profit organizations; and faith-based organizations to enhance the quality of life within many communities throughout the United States. She uses her strategic thinking skills to help clients synthesize information from wide-ranging sources, reframe problems while uncovering root causes to find refreshing, creative and effective solutions.
Over the past two decades, Wendy has helped thousands of organizations and their people to create brighter futures for the communities in which they serve. Her excitement in working with the members of Maryland Nonprofit’s is infectious. She values the genius that each and every person brings to their role in the sector and works diligently to elevate any person that she engages with.
Ms. Wolff holds a Master’s Degree in Public Health from New York University. She has resided as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Denver and as an Associate Faculty Member at Indian River State College. Wendy is a licensed consultant with the Standards for Excellence® Institute. Ms. Wolff’s first book, The Letter Writing Project (Blooming Twig Books), was published in August 2014.
Carol Hamilton: Welcome, Wendy. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Wendy Wolff: Thank you so much for having me, Carol. It's lovely to be here.
Carol: So, to get us started, what drew you to the work that you do? What really motivates you and what would you describe or how would you describe your why?
Wendy: Great question. My why started a long time ago. Over 25 years ago. So, I will share why that happened. But one of the things that I love about the work that I do and what jazzes me all the time is that it's a very lonely job, being the leader of a nonprofit, there are a lot of rules and we have this notion in society that it's easier to run a nonprofit than it is to run a for-profit. I’ve done both and I would disagree greatly. I would say that running a nonprofit takes a tremendous amount of skill and finesse, and it's a very lonely position to be at the top because there's a board element and then of course who are your chief volunteers and motivating them and getting them involved yet not having anybody overstep their bounds is a real dance. Trying to find that and being sustainable is how I want to say that. So I think that's a really big challenge and I find that sometimes we refer to ourselves internally at Maryland nonprofits, sometimes as our job is to validate, we do a lot of validating the instincts of executives and supporting the great work that people do, and if they had enough time and enough freedom in their calendars and enough space for strategic thinking, they wouldn't even need us, but we provide that clarity and that moment of taking a break to think about things in a different way. So that's what I love. There's so many other things, but I really want to say how I started my why, how I got my why was: I was at a local health department in Colorado and I was asked - this was in 1993 - and I was asked to sit on a brand new CDC group, and every state was told that you will not get another dime of funding if you don't create community engagement groups, community mobilization groups to help decision makers identify the priorities for AIDS dollars. At the time, we didn't even know about HIV that much. Anyway, long story short, I was nominated to sit on this committee and I was so frustrated. We just went round and round and round and round, it was one of my first professional jobs. It was early on in my career and I'll never forget it. The meeting was being facilitated by the National Civic League. I was like a kid in a candy store. I didn't even know what I was involved in. I just thought it was outstanding that this exists, it was amazing. There's a facilitation team and people are coming all together to make decisions together, but we weren't being successful. So somehow I got myself on the steering committee. Everybody was supposed to check a committee and I'm in this room month after month after month, getting nothing done. So finally, this exact thing happened: I pick up a marker and I jump up and I go ‘Oh my God, who, what, where, when, how’ and I just write it on the whiteboard. I'll never forget it. We got things done! A facilitator confronts me at the end, he goes, ‘do you facilitate meetings?’ And I was like, ‘what's that?’ It felt so right and so good. That's really how I got my start. After that, I started working with the Colorado department of Public Health and Environment, a little bit more through this process and then became a nonprofit executive. I founded a nonprofit to work with intravenous drug users because at the time the rates were skyrocketing and we didn't have needle exchange and all of those things. So that was what really jazzed me which was that somebody has to be the glue to all the genius in the room. I love that role. I love to listen intently and to thread the story so that everybody can hear it clearly. All the same information so that we can act accordingly and together. That’s what I love.
Carol: There's so many things that I want to follow up on from that. I think one of them is your comment at the very beginning where you said that there's this assumption that working in the nonprofit sector is easier, running a nonprofit is easier than a for-profit organization. I've had so many articles about people who come to the end of their career and they say ‘I want to dial back, I'm going to go work at a nonprofit’ or nonprofits are always being told ‘well, people are more business.’ I'd love for you to say a little bit more about, what is it that you believe, or in your experience, really makes it harder to run a nonprofit than a for-profit organization.
Wendy: Maybe harder isn’t the right word. They're just different to me. They're different organisms. Nonprofits have significant cultural rules, they have processes that they follow. I've had several clients over the last seven years at Maryland Nonprofits where they hired a For-Profit Executive to come in and be the new CEO only to be really dissatisfied that all of a sudden the board - here's the bottom line: in the for-profit world, we don't have to answer to our board of directors in the same way. For somebody who has run their own business, someone else's business, or led a for-profit, they are used to making decisions and there isn’t a considerable amount of decision making that an executive director does that doesn't need the oversight of their board. But when they do, that's when there are a lot of problems. It's already a unique relationship because there has to be attention given to the relationship between the executive director and the board chair. That is not a passive relationship, that is an active relationship. That is two people coming together to decide: where are we heading? And they do this every two years. So they get somewhere and when you bring in a for-profit person, they don't always understand that. So you get the lone ranger aspect, which is: ‘why do I have to answer to you?’ But in fact, you do. That's one element that I think is weird. Then the other thing is that relying on sales or product movement for a for-profit, to me seems a little easier. You have an unlimited, potentially unlimited, revenue source, right? It just means that you have to be a little bit more creative. You have to narrow down who your folks are, that you're marketing to. In the nonprofit, you have to figure out really creative, unique ways to sustain salary for everyone on your operating expenses and admin. We have these rules that you can't have administrative overhead costs, right? Well, you can, but you can't always get funded for them. So it's just difficult and hard. And not impossible, but different. And I think it's just harder.
Carol: I think it is. It's so interesting, especially with everything that's going on right now in the country and our democracy. I think that the organizations people spend a lot of their time in - whether they work for a for-profit organization, a nonprofit, or the government sector, obviously, it's government, but in the for-profit many organizations try to have more of a bottom up approach- but ultimately the decision-making and the ‘bucks stops here’ ends with the CEO and the leader of the organization. And they can be very effective by being very top down and very directive and in some ways almost autocratic. And in a nonprofit it's much more of that distributed democratic, division of power, not exactly the same as the way our government is set up, but that key relationship between the executive director and the board chair. The executive director working for the board, the board being a collection of, an organ of people. People who then have to act as one and keep that fresh in terms of new people and. So there's so many more constituencies, you're managing a lot of constituencies. So often, I've heard it referred to as herding cats. I'm sure there's aspects of that in the for-profit sector as well, but I've definitely seen folks who’ve made that switch say that they were even more challenged because there were so many stakeholders and constituencies that they had to think about. Then the fundraising side, as you talk about, it's not that direct, ‘customer to company’ relationship. You ended up having, again, a triangle of - especially in cause-related non-profits- a donor who gives to the organization because they're motivated and for a variety of different reasons. But then the people who actually receive services may be contributing a small amount, may not be contributing anything or large funder- all of that complication of that indirect relationship of how the money flows
Wendy: You just said it. It may be the trick is that it's not harder, it's much more complicated. It's complicated to run a really streamlined, effective, prosperous, sustainable nonprofit. It is. And I don't know if it's complicated in the for-profit world in the same way.
Carol: Yeah. As you said it's really just that in a lot of ways, there's so many things that are different. And the rules, the structures, the processes and the culture, can be very different.
Wendy: This is not to say, ‘don't hire a for-profit person to be your CEO’. This is not to say that, but give them ample opportunity to understand the culture and the nuances of the nonprofit, business cycle and the life cycle of a nonprofit. All of that has to go with that.
Carol: Yeah. You work across a range of different areas, some of them being strategic planning and evaluation. And that's another piece, I think that, in a way, is so different in the nonprofit sector. Especially those working with missions that have a long horizon; you're not going to see change over a long period of time. There may be a lot of different factors that go into being able to demonstrate outcomes, but yet that's so important. I'm curious, how would you define evaluation and why it's important for nonprofits?
Wendy: That’s a great question. The first thing I want to say about evaluation that I've figured out over the last 30 years or so, is that people are definitely afraid - not definitely- people are afraid of evaluation, just that word. The truth is we evaluate all day long. I'm evaluating right now. We evaluate: ‘Should I wear this? Should I wear that? Should I eat this? Should I eat that? Should I wear my seatbelt? Should I not wear my seatbelt? Should I drink water? How much water?’
So the first thing about evaluation is that we do it all day long. That is how we get from moment to moment in this lifetime. We decide where we're headed and we figure out the degree to which we have succeeded. So evaluation to me is, and this is such a sticky part because there's two pieces about evaluation. There is this whole notion of evidence-based programming. And then there is this notion of ‘what are you trying to accomplish?’ And ‘how close are you to accomplishing that?’ I love this phrase and I use it a lot when I work with people around evaluation: “What we're trying to figure out is the degree to which something has been achieved.”
‘Has it been achieved fully?’ And ‘what was that?’ And ‘are there things beyond once it's been achieved fully, that will keep happening? Or has it been achieved slightly? Or middle of the road?’ So when we're evaluating the degree to which our programs are successful, we have to keep that in mind. It's not a, ‘did we do it or didn't we do it?’ It's ‘how did it go?’ And what was accomplished and what, what, and even more importantly, what wasn't accomplished is also-
Carol: Can you give me an example of that one? I think in some ways, I think it's easy for people to kind of- I mean, the place that my brain went when you started describing in that way, it was almost like the kind of tactics in a strategic plan that are like, ‘have we checked these things off?’ But I don't think that's really what you're talking about. So I'm wondering if you'd give me an example.
Wendy: Sure, sure. So I'm going to try thinking on my feet, it’s the end of the day, but the first thing I do want to say is there are four- Oh, dear, this is an evaluation class, isn't it? So there's four-
Carol: We'll try to make it not scary. Because I agree with you, people find that they're just like: “Evaluation. Oo, it's a big E and a big V!” What's that, you know?
Wendy: Yeah, and we have these things where the same terms mean different things. There's formative evaluation and that you execute when you are trying to determine if something will work. Informative evaluation, you are pilot testing, you are asking questions, you are talking to the community before you do anything. Just to find out, ‘Is that this right?’, ‘Is this wrong?’, ‘Will it work?’, ‘Will it not work?’
Here's a great example. Okay, well, I'll get you the example in a second. Then you've got process evaluation, which is widget counting. ‘How many brochures do we hand out? How many meetings did we do? How many people attended the meetings?’ When we do, then we have [an] outcome and impact. Outcome evaluation is ‘what happened and did that change anyone's life, now?’ ‘How has it changed someone's life, now?’ An outcome evaluation to me- first of all, there's also not one school of thought, some people use different schools of thought and timeframe- but to me, timeframe determines whether or not we use outcome evaluation or impact evaluation. Outcome tells me what occurred and how did that-, how was that set up for people's lives to change? ‘Did they change to what degree, what worked, what didn't work’. And then impact evaluation is longer. Longer down the path that says, ‘So what are the results? Did people change? And was it lasting?’ That costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Oftentimes, people interchange, misuse, the words ‘impact’ and ‘outcome’. So [I] just wanted to share that because even I think, in my opinion, I know a lot about evaluation. I'm not an expert. I don't like to call myself an expert in anything, but I know I like it and I know quite a bit about it.
So a good example would be, let's say, we did a series of discussions in the community about quitting smoking. Right. What about- let me see if that's the [example] I want to use. Hold on. Oh, let's do nutrition. That's better, that's better. So we have, we're doing a series of discussions and it's been so long since I've been in person with people that I'm like, ‘do we even do that anymore?’ Yeah, let's pretend we're in person. We're doing community discussions, we invite the community in, because we know that that high blood pressure is running rampant in a certain community. We invite people in to help them understand how to control it, right?. And so in the formative stage, we might ask five or six individuals from that community: ‘What should be in our program? What would make this more meaningful? How could we get people to come?’ So we do all that work. We create some networks and we actually get quite a bit of people. We've had 50 people come. It's amazing, right? To two sessions, 50 people to two sessions. Could we say that that was a success? Yes, only though it was a process success. It was not an outcome that 50 people came because we have no idea the degree to which they are going to go home and make it change their lives. So maybe the class was about not using salt because we know that salt is really bad for high blood pressure. Well, the fact is that a lot goes into decision-making. So the question is will two classes [that were] wildly attended- which is great, that's nothing to sneeze at- but could we say that those two classes will have a direct result in people's lives being changed? I don't know. I don't think so. So programs need to use this and this is why the logic model is so interesting and now we're really geeking out.
Carol: Let's just get geeky on this. Tell people what a logic model is.
Wendy: It's so great because the logic model is the roadmap, right? So it gives you an opportunity to go, ‘Where do we want to be?’ And then logically work backwards from where we want to be, where we want the community to be, or our participants at the target population. And then we work backwards and ask ourselves, ‘Well, if we want to be there, does this make sense? Does this make sense? Does this make sense? Does this make sense?’ So, and- at this point, actually in our evolution, and with the internet, there are so many, so many things that have already been evaluated that we could build on the successes of others without just developing new programs. So evaluation provides an opportunity for us to be thoughtful, think strategically and make sure that things are lined up. To get the best result possible for the community. And logic is a great word because if it's not logical, if it doesn't fit, then [you] probably are not going to have strong outcome results. So that was four hours in about five minutes.
Carol: Yeah and I appreciate that because I think one of the things that actually having a group build that logic model for themselves- and it sounds, it sounds geeky and cumbersome, but really it's, ‘Let's map out what our thoughts and assumptions are.’ And by making it a visual, and by going through the process, you have a chance to dig into what those assumptions are. I've worked with a lot of organizations that work in the conservation and environmental field. Oftentimes, especially around their program, their work that's with people - often citizen scientists or they're doing environmental education or other things like that - they can't measure that or demonstrate the impact of that in the same way that they can measure the pollutants in a river, let's say. But so often the vision is that a group of people by participating in their programs will become advocates for their local river, let's say. And yet, when they think about what they're doing in their program, their goals are that people will understand more about the river. Then you have to say, okay, it's kinda like the geometry teacher wanted you to show their math and all your steps. ‘How do you get the people from, they understand a little bit more about their river and they've gone to it and they'd been on it, to this leap of and being an advocate. Like there's gotta be some more ladder, you know? So, sometimes it's, ‘Well, that's where we actually want to get, this is what we're doing over here.’ How do we help people? Or, it's probably a subset of the people. Take those extra steps to move them closer to what we're hoping for them rather than just being a hope.
Wendy: Exactly. And that was a great illustration. You did a good example and we have to be clear when we're writing proposals and talking to funders about what we're promising, because those advocates, no matter, they are fired up, those folks who come to that first session, those environmental sessions. They could be fired up and super excited, but we have to take into consideration what it takes to get from information to action and also the confounding factors that go into it. I could be absolutely jazzed. You could be the best person; I have come to both of your sessions. I walk away so excited and then I go home, and I've got three kids, and I work full time, and I'm exhausted, and there's no time for myself. And even though my intention is to become an advocate, there are other things surrounding me. So what we have to do in program planning and evaluation starts before people walk in the door. We have to think about ‘what's the trajectory of that person?’ And ‘how do we interact with them?’ And is that an okay result that I've come to two things? We've checked the boxes that we've had 50 people at each session. And that's wonderful because that tells us that people are changing in their awareness , but does it mean that they're taking action? And that's a different thing and sometimes the change in action takes much, much longer. And the last thing I wanted to say is, the word assumption is amazing in the logic model, because along that we have, there are so many assumptions that we have to consider when working with communities. And we also have to look at- I love the theory of behavior change by proChaska and DiClemente, which says people go from precontemplation, to contemplation, to action, to maintenance, and to relapse. Tenants relapse, and if you are not in contemplation, I have to know where my community is coming into a program, so that I can figure out if I can help them change behavior. If you don't even think that smoking's bad, nothing I'm going to do is helping you. So we can't push people along. They naturally go through that process. But we have to recognize that when we plan programs.
Carol: It was actually the smoking piece that made me think that just bringing people to awareness, just providing information, has now been proven over time doesn't necessarily create- it can for some people, they will be self motivated and it will create action - but one does not equal the other.
Wendy: And they have to match. And I always look back on- we did a lot with smoking, right? I mean, we used to smoke in elevators, on airplanes. So we did this huge social movement together. Drunk driving, wearing seatbelts; We've accomplished a lot as a community, but we still have the difficulty of helping individuals changing their behavior. So when we are writing our evaluation plans or designing programs, we need to really hone in on: ‘What's the change we're hoping to see and how does everything we do set a person up to eventually make that, take that leap.’ They may not all take it. And how do we know? So we could go on and on.
Carol: Yeah. And what you also talked about kind of, which is an area that I feel like I want to learn more about is: how does that, changing social norms, actually play into this as well? Because we're such social creatures and I, it was so interesting that you talked about smoking. Cause I was at a meeting, a zoom meeting, today and a woman was smoking and I was just so shocked. And whatever 40 years ago, that would have been totally normal. Every single person would have been. So, yeah, it's fascinating. Yeah. So people think it's scary. We just talked about some complicated thing, we used a bunch of different terms. How do folks- Actually what's a place to get started? If an organization isn't doing evaluation yet, or maybe they're doing evaluation, but it's more of the kind of, ‘are you satisfied with whatever we offered, today?’ ‘Did you like the workshop thing?’
Wendy: ‘Did they come and did they like it?’ And the thing is, workshops. So we-
Carol: And that's just one thing that organizations do, obviously they do lots of other things.
Wendy: They do lots of things. And what I wanted to just say about that is, there's a difference between the changes that people make and the intent to change that we cannot say when we do, workshops that people are going to change. We can say that this demonstrates an intent to change, but anyway, how you would start is this.
I teach a lot of evaluation classes actually. And one of them, what I love, what I always go back to and it's - I have my master's in public health and love public health - I think public health (we're witnessing it right now) but public health for years and years and years has been, for decades and decades has been using terminology for evaluation and requiring programs to be evaluated. So I recommend that people utilize public health, evaluation tools. [The} Center for Disease Control has excellent resources on evaluation, and to me that is the most clear version of it. And then there are a lot of books on evaluation, grab one or go on it, but make sure that it's “evaluation made easy.” It doesn't have to be complicated. We are not talking about evidence-based evaluations that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. We're talking about, how do we build programs so that they're logical and that we can say, ‘Here's what we think will happen at the end of this.’ And then we have to backtrack and go, ‘Well, if we're saying this is going to happen, how will we know? Okay, we've got to talk to people. How will we talk to them? Will we call them? Will we invite them to a meeting? Do we have to pay them for their time?’ So to me, the resources are- definitely go to the CDC. I can't remember, there was- I can't remember. I'll try to get you a list of resources, but any public health organization that is doing evaluation is I think, light years ahead and has a lot of insight personally.
Carol: Yeah and you talked about that evidence-based work and programming and the investment that takes. But can you just say a little bit about what that is and even if folks, a small organization, can't try to tackle something like that, what can they learn from what other people have done?
Wendy: Yeah, that’s exactly right. So evidenced-based programs are ones that have gone through a fairly rigorous evaluation model to prove that the structure of their programs and the design works. And that if you hold what's called fidelity, if you hold to everything that they say that has to be done, you too can achieve, with your target population, the same results. So it costs lots of money. One of the difficulties around the term evidence-based programs is that it excludes anything that's not been evaluated already within this very formal type of evaluation. It's difficult. I think there's systemic issues around that because it's only the programs that have the money to do evaluation that get noted as an evidence-based practice. But there are other practices that work while there are promising practices, there are lots of things that work. So, I don't want to be political, I think you could Google a little bit about the politics around evidence-based evaluation, that you could see a bunch of the difficulties that exist around it. And I think personally, Wendy Wolff thinks that just because a program isn't an evidence-based program does not mean it's not valuable and changing lives. It just means that it doesn't have the funding to become an evidence-based program. What we need to do - those of us who don't have the money to prove the degree to which our program has been successful for large groups of people - is to keep track of very good notes to make sure we understand who the target population is and what they come to the table with before they interact with us. That [way] we can measure some way or demonstrate the change that has occurred between them before they came in and then after. And it might be anecdotal information, it might not be scientific. It might not be cutting edge data, but it's interesting and profound and lives are being changed. That has to be honored because- I have a great story that I love. This was in West Baltimore a couple of years ago. We stumbled across a gentleman who was- it was in the summertime - he'd create a fire in a fireplace and people could see it from the road and he had hot cocoa and he had a welcome sign. He invited people to come sit around the fire and have a cup of cocoa, chat and they would connect and would exchange information, help each other, and get each other services. Is that an evidence-based program? No. Was it making a difference? You can bet your butt it was. People were connected. People were getting resources. People had friends, they weren't alone. Those are all good things.
Carol: Yeah. Even if you don't go to this step of implementing measurement processes, just the fact that you've had a conversation to unlock those assumptions, I think can, bring about shifts in the program, in the staff and the board, around the understanding of what you're trying to achieve. just that process I think can have impact and can be valuable. Yes.
Wendy: Then my last plea is to carve out time at the beach before the program begins so that we- once people walk through the door, we've lost an opportunity for measurement. So we want to understand, we want to really create some thoughtful time to understand what it is that we want to collect along the way. And I want to tell you, easier said than done. I myself have been in the middle of a program and been like, ‘Oh, we haven't done any evaluation indicators yet.’
The idea is that we can never go back. People can't go unlearn something. So we need to know, if we want to capture the degree to which people have changed, we need to know where they come in at. Then we can say, even if it's not this scientific evidence-based program, that change in a person's life is huge and storytelling is enormous. And right now I'm leaving a fairly large project and I- So today, just today, one of the participants in this big cohort that we're leading wrote me a note and said, ‘I'm so excited. I feel great. I'm getting huge results with my consultant. I see that we're going to be in a better place at the end of this.’ (Which is two years) And I save that. I was like, I'm going to need this at some point. It's not scientific, but I can go back to it in two years. I can go back to that and go, ‘This is where he was.’ And actually I wrote back, ‘Can you be more specific?’ So I can go, ‘Oh, this guy was at, didn't have this, this, this, and this. Now look at him.’
Carol: Yeah. And I think that point of, helping, figuring out a way to capture some of that, essentially that baseline of where folks are starting from, you're always wanting to develop a program that meets people where they are. So then also documenting that starting point where they are, is key to be able to then see the difference.
Wendy: Yeah, yeah. And report it. Stories, stories do a lot. Storytelling is amazing.
Carol: Right. It doesn't have to be, it doesn't all have to be numbers. There is plenty of, from a qualitative point of view- Very valuable, yeah. Well, we certainly got geeky on program evaluation, but I mean, it's so important and I do think that, try to demystify it a little bit because, for the majority of nonprofits, smaller organizations, small budgets, and yet they're being- hard to get started in that realm and hard to know. They're dealing with so many different things and juggling a lot of different things to build that in as well. Seems hard. but the benefit, well, I mean, what would you say? For those smaller organizations kind of. Why is it worth spending the time to do it?
Wendy: Well, to plan out an evaluation strategy?
Carol: Try to incorporate it, yeah. Evaluate a little more, just a little more, maybe evaluation into your, into your, yeah-
Wendy: Just a little more, yeah. First of all, I think it will be relieving because we are peppered or pummeled with the question of, ‘How's your program doing? What's the results? What's the impact? What's the outcome?’ And that makes everybody so nervous. So the more thoughtful we can be to really think about ahead of time how we will know we've succeeded or the degree to which we've succeeded. That'll help reduce our stress because when we're asked that question, we'll go, well, here's how. These are great- this happened to me just this week. I had to write a report to a funder and I was like, ‘Oh, well, I have that all written because I had been collecting this data all along. Just put it in this file, put it in the file.’ And then when it’s time to write the report, there it is. So I think anything we can do to, to collect, to - I don't want to say the word prove, cause I don't like that - to demonstrate how we are making a difference, whether it's immediate or short term or it has potential for longterm, any way we can demonstrate that it will build our confidence and it will support us and it will help our sustainability.
Carol: Well, at the end of each episode, I ask, a somewhat random icebreaker question. So, if you could have any fictional character as your friend, who would you choose and why?
Wendy: All right, wait a second. Any fictional character as my friend. Oh dear. Hold on. I got to scan through my shows and stuff. Let's see. Fictional character. I really like Lisa Simpson from the Simpsons. I love her desire for good. I like Lisa's musical talent. I like that she doesn't give up on her hope and her commitment to what's right and just in the world. So I really like Lisa Simpson. So off the cuff, not having known that question, I think that would be one of my choices and I'm sure there's better ones, but that's the one right now.
Carol: Well from how you described Lisa, it sounds like she'd be a good addition to the nonprofit sector.
Wendy: Lisa Simpson would be a great CEO and a great activist.
Carol: All right. So what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you or emerging in the work that you're doing?
Wendy: That's great. Good question. I am really excited that- my role at Maryland nonprofits that maybe people don't know because they see me in the consulting role is that my title is ‘Director of Strategic Engagement’ and my job is to - we restructured a couple of years ago - So the consultant group is in my department. So I am still actively involved, but I'm excited. My role of strategic engagement is to build relationships, bring and dot connect, which I love to do. So what I'm excited about this year, I have three priorities. My three priorities are- Carmen Marshall, our director of consulting, runs a beautiful racial equity program. And Carmen is one of the most lovely human beings I've ever met and I am looking forward to helping her to download all of her thoughts and get that developed and put into a plan we can execute. So I'm really excited about that. I'm super excited about our legal consulting program. Patty Morton has been doing legal consulting for Maryland nonprofits - she's our general counsel and she's also on my team- and up until two years ago, most of the work Patty did was a lot of startup work. She does mergers and other great stuff, but what we have seen over the years is people really love Patty. She's amazing and they need that help, so I would like to build Patty's legal consulting program. That's something else we're going to do. Then finally, the claim to fame for me is our Standards for Excellence Institute. That's my third priority to help more folks understand the standards and understand why being a licensed and accredited organization could be a good choice for them and how to utilize the standards. Those are my three strategic engagement focused areas, and I'm super excited about them.
Carol: That's awesome. And I love that you've got three because as a person who helps groups with strategic planning or your personal planning, three is the magic number. That's just enough. That's just not, not too few, not too many, to really have focus. Well, thank you so much. It's great having you on and we'll put links in to how now people can get in touch with you and learn more and about the things that you're talking about. So it was great, I appreciated the conversation and the chance to geek out with you on evaluation.
Wendy: That's so great. Thanks for having me, Carol. This was a treat.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.
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